The University of California's BP Problem

As oil spills into the Gulf of Mexico, we are reminded of UC Berkeley's controversial deal with BP. The oil company currently supports the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, and as one recent newspaper article put it, "It may seem incongruous that an oil company responsible for such environmental devastation is funding this effort to find green fuels and reduce oil use." Like so many other large corporations, BP spends a small fraction of its revenue on alternative technologies and resources so that it can proudly proclaim that it is doing something for the environment.

Since universities are now seeking outside funding, and corporations are looking for ways to improve their public images, programs like Berkeley's Energy Biosciences Institute seem to make perfect sense. However, we must ask if universities really want to have their images tarred by companies that are more concerned with the bottom line than higher education.

When in 2007, BP pledged $500 million to Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, some people protested, but most university officials praised this deal as the biggest corporate support for university research ever made. However, we have to ask if this is a deal made with the devil, and will the university's reputation for objectivity and neutrality be undermined by such a huge gift? In other words, can scientists question BP and its practices if these researchers are being supported out of the corporation's profits?

According to its agreement with BP, the UC could walk out of the arrangement if an event occurs that violates the university's policies. In the agreement signed by UC and BP, it clearly states that the university "should avoid any collaboration that would render it an active participant in criminal conduct, human rights violations, or environmental despoliation." Since the current oil spill is clearly an example of "environmental despoliation" and may prove to be a case of "criminal conduct," it is clear that the UC should break the deal. However, we know how hard it will be to walk away from easy money during a budget crisis.