Corporate-university deal hurts people, environment
The University of California at Berkeley, along with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, is getting ready to receive $500 million to build and operate a new Energy Biosciences Institute.
So why are students, faculty and community members protesting?
Because the money comes from BP Amoco PLC, formerly known as "British Petroleum." This oil company has recently blown up workers in a Texas explosion, spilled tons of oil in Alaska, and routinely violates human rights in Africa.
Protesters don't want a corporate research agenda at a public university. BP wants UC to help it develop biofuels (chemical products made out of farm crops) to replace a dwindling oil supply. It wants to own the patent rights and it wants the profits. It is not concerned with the needs of the world's people for earth-friendly farming techniques to produce food and preserve water.
The BP deal is not just a corporate donation to the university with a building to be named after the benefactor. The $50 million per year for ten years is more than three times UC's current annual corporate research funding.
Out of the 150 faculty hired to staff the new research center, 50 will be chosen by BP. In the words of BP, they will "help design courses, mentor students and promote science careers to schoolkids."
Chancellor Birgeneau defends the right of professors to accept corporate funding as "academic freedom;" but doesn't this agreement require those professors to put their research in the service of the corporation? As one student asked, "Is corporate funding the long-term solution for the university?"
University higher-ups point to the BP deal as a solution to the problem of global warming. But faculty and students, many in the College of Natural Resources, have been exposing the pitfalls of the biofuels movement.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) are currently developing genetically-altered crops to use in the production of biofuels. Thick, woody grasses which are over ten feet tall will be prominent in the new BP project. Imagine an invasion of genetically-modified giant weeds sweeping through the farmlands of the Midwest (the crops for the project will be grown by the University of Illinois). Professor Ignacio Chapela, a major critic of the deal, stated "A hurricane [would be] more predictable, a wildfire more controllable."
And it will not stop there. In poor nations around the world, people who grow food for themselves and their communities are already being driven off the land to make room for corporations who grow cash crops for consumers in rich countries. But growing giant grass to fuel ever-increasing numbers of cars requires way more area than growing bananas for our breakfasts.
Professor of Ecosystems Science Paul Gutierrez explains, "Even if you plant the last hectare with biofuels, the demand keeps growing. Then what?"
The university, the corporations, and our government leaders look to technological fixes like biofuels to solve the problem of global warming. Their ties to a profit-driven system prevent them from challenging the patterns of production and consumption which are creating this disaster.
But the real solution is a social one. We need to consider how we can reorganize our society so that we use less fuel, preserve the earth, and create a good life for the majority of people instead of obscene wealth for the few.
We need to preserve our university as a public place to ask questions about how and why decisions are made and what we can do to make the fundamental changes we need. We can begin by excluding corporations from our educational process. Their only goal is to expand profit. As geography professor Richard Walker stated, "It's amazing how much wisdom you can generate without $500 million."