How Corporate Cash is Increasingly Influencing University Research
By Joaquin Palomino
April 22, 2013

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.

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