Report links UC, oil companies
IoES Director Glen MacDonald is quoted in a Daily Bruin article about contributions from oil companies to California schools.
Originally published in The Daily Bruin
By Jake Greenberg
The slippery issue over contributions from oil companies to California schools for research has intensified after a report was released that listed UC Berkeley and UC Davis among the colleges benefiting the donations.
“Big Oil Goes to College,” a report from the Center for American Progress written by independent researcher Jennifer Washburn, scrutinized the contracts between college campuses and oil companies. The report also questioned the objectivity of UC environmental research – including cleaner energy and greener industry – that is funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from the oil industry.
Though UCLA was not listed in the report, most of the University of California campuses have interactions with the private sector to some degree, said Glen MacDonald, a professor of geography and director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
“UCLA certainly has a fund that companies can contribute to, and we are happy to work with corporations,” he said. “Both sides can benefit when research helps companies develop more sustainable practices, and those companies can contribute to our research at UCLA.”
MacDonald added that though every case must be treated separately, the majority of donations given for research are not driven by an agenda.
“I have never had a firm who comes in and says ‘Here’s some money, but now you have to do what we say.’ Most of these companies are sincerely looking for ways to help and genuinely want to establish more sustainable environmental strategies,” he said.
The largest donation the UCLA IOES has received is $5 million from Morton La Kretz in 2002. This money was used to found the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science.
At UC Berkeley, a $500 million donation given in 2007 by BP was used to create the Energy Biosciences Institute, which focuses on researching cleaner energy alternatives rather than fossil fuels. The donation was the largest of its kind, though the report issued by the Center for American Progress examines 10 other cases across the nation.
Ignacio Chapela, an associate professor of microbial ecology at UC Berkeley, said the funding from companies such as BP compromises the impartial nature of scientific inquiry.
Chapela said he refuses to get any of his research funding from the oil company’s money by avoiding the EBI, and will go directly through the university instead of under the oil company’s influence.
“I don’t want to work with the oil companies, I don’t want them overseeing what I can do in my lab,” he said. “If they gain control over funding, they gain control over what can be researched, what people can ask, and ultimately what can be made public. This jeopardizes all academic freedom,” Chapela said.
But Dan Mogulof, the executive director of the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley, said Berkeley’s academic mission is not threatened by BP’s funding.
“The only instruction British Petroleum gave to us when we accepted this money was, ‘Please apply your expertise in biology to the energy challenge.’ That’s it,” he said. “I challenge anyone to read the contract and find one reference that suggests we have sacrificed our values for any kind of agenda.”
Kate Gordon, the vice president of energy policy at the Center for American Progress, said oil companies can manipulate publishing deadlines and the peer review process to make sure research findings do not hurt the industry, thus undermining the process that makes the universities’ research credible.
Tom Mueller, a spokesman for BP, said the relationship between UC Berkeley and BP benefits both parties.
“There is an entrepreneurial element involved. We were looking for the best and sharpest minds in the field, and that brought us to Berkeley,” Mueller said.
As one of the largest investors in biofuels in the United States, Mueller said BP benefits from UC Berkeley’s success in research but doesn’t push the university in any direction.
Published: Friday, October 22, 2010