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Billions of Corporate Dollars Are Hijacking University Research to Help Make Profits

The infusion of money at universities like UC Berkeley have drastically affected scientific inquiry in the United States.

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The following piece was originally published in the East Bay Express. Reprinted with permission.

In April of 2010, British Petroleum's offshore drilling unit Deep Water Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers died, 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the ocean, and 665 miles of coastline were contaminated. It was the biggest accidental marine oil spill in US history.

Just one month after the ruptured well was sealed, UC Berkeley ecologist Terry Hazen made a groundbreaking discovery: He identified a new microorganism that was eating the spilled oil and breaking it down into CO2 and water. The microbe was so active that, according to Hazen and his team of scientists, the vast plumes of oil in the gulf had "went away fairly rapidly after the well was capped." Hazen's findings were published in the academic journal Science, and subsequently reported by most major media outlets. One fact, however, was often omitted: The research was funded by BP.

Such a pairing is possible because in 2007, UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and BP signed a ten-year, $500 million research agreement that funded work on biofuels and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). "When people read the Science report, they thought they were reading a Berkeley professor's research," said Ignacio Chapela, professor of microbial ecology at UC Berkeley. "They didn't realize it was also BP saying, 'You shouldn't worry about the oil spill anymore.'"

Over the past fifteen years, UC Berkeley has experienced an explosion in privately funded research. In 2002, the engineering department's CITRIS lab, which conducts energy, transportation, and medical research, received an initial investment of $75 million from dozens of industrial partners. The lab continues to secure roughly $50 million a year in both federal and private grants. In 2012, the Energy Biosciences building was constructed with more than $90 million from numerous private investors. And last spring, Texas Instruments gifted $2.2 million to UC Berkeley's engineering department to upgrade classrooms and labs.

The infusion of corporate cash at UC Berkeley also has drastically changed the type of research being done at the university. For decades, much of the research on campus was federally funded and driven primarily by scientific curiosity. The results of this basic research allowed the public to better understand such concepts as genetics, the origins of humanity, and the laws of physics. It also won UC Berkeley numerous Nobel prizes.

Federal agencies still fund the majority of research at UC Berkeley. But the university, and others like it across the nation, have experienced a forty-year decline in federally supported basic science research because of government cutbacks. The rise of corporate funding, in turn, has spawned a dramatic increase in the amount of applied research on campus. It's typically funded by industry and aims to develop products that can be quickly brought to market — and create corporate profits.

This fundamental overhaul of scientific inquiry at the nation's top research universities has many concerned that the public-service element of science is dying. At the same time, some pragmatic researchers have accepted the new private-public paradigm and are working to identify the right safeguards to ensure that industry doesn't wield too much power over academia. "You can have private money in the sciences, it just has to be done right," argued engineering professor David Dornfeld, faculty head for the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a massive public-private partnership currently being drafted at UC Berkeley. "You have to be careful how it's perceived, you have to have oversight, it has to be transparent, and it has to be consistent with the core mission of the university."

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