From the Chron:
UC Berkeley's $500 million energy research deal with oil giant BP took a pounding at a faculty forum Thursday, with a host of speakers critical of the unprecedented partnership -- some bitingly so.
I am quite interested in this because although I think it is great that Berkeley/LBL are going to now be moving big time into biofuels research, I have heard and read a variety of things regarding this deal that make one want to look at it more carefully. Some of the grumblings may be related to the standard anti-GMO opinions pervasive in Berkeley, but some of them may be more significant. For example when I gave a talk at Berkeley a few weeks ago, I asked as many people as I could why Berkeley picked U. Illinois to be their agricultural partner on the project and not Davis. And the answer was basically always the same - supposedly people at Berkeley were told by BP that Davis could not be involved because Davis had recently singed a collaborative agreement with Chevron over biofuels research.
Now folks at Berkeley are welcome to choose whomever they want to be involved in the project. But if they were told by BP that Davis could not be involved, that suggests academic freedom was tossed out the window. This thing is - I have been having a hard time getting any straight answers from people involved in the LBL/Berkeley side of things. So I had forgotten about the whole thing when someone sent me a link to the Chron story. What really caught my attention is the quote from Paul Rabinow in the article:
I met Paul at a workshop at Berkeley on the field of Synthetic Biology and he struck me as one of the most sensible people in the crowd even though he was not directly involved in Synthetic Biology research. He gave a talk at the meeting that was really spectacular (I think you see the talk here). Since newspaper articles do not always get the whole story correct, I am not certain how accurately they represent Paul's real concerns regarding the BP deal.
Anthropology Professor Paul Rabinow cited the 1998-2003 research deal between Swiss biotech firm Novartis and Cal's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. That deal, which provided for $5 million a year from 1998 to 2003, was intended to develop genetically engineered foods. It sparked campus protests and was criticized at the time by faculty members who felt it was implemented without collegial debate.
"The way the university handled it was completely, recklessly stupid," Rabinow said.
The same mistakes are being repeated with the BP deal, he said.
"It should have been transparent, there should have been consultation," he said. "This is silly. You should have given us more time to debate this."
But from the article it sounds like the Berkeley and LBL administration may not have consulted the faculty broadly on the nature of the deal. That would be a bad thing since such secrecy is, as Rabinow implied, not the right way to get community support. In addition, it sounds like some of the people involved in the project have let the large amount of money go to their heads (one faculty member was reported to have said that Berkeley "researchers can't afford to fail on a project of such magnitude" as though it was the amount of money that determined whether one should do a good job on something, which is silly).
So I guess the question that is unresolved is - did Berkeley and LBL compromise their principles for a pot of gold? I do not know but I hope they get moving in front of this really rally fast and (1) make sure the deal is on the up and up and (2) become more open about the whole thing. This is particularly important because I think LBL and Berkeley could become world leaders in biofuels research. But they could also cause biofuels research to end up being treated like all genetic engineering work if they are not careful. And that would be a bad thing since if done right, biofuels have enormous potential. Here's hoping Berkeley/LBL/BP change tactics, and get rid of the whole secrecy thing and move every detail of the project into the open.
A webcast of the meeting is here.