An Unstable Concoction of Interests

Tadeusz W. Patzek is professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. Reply to [email protected]

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In 1988 BP Amoco PLC became the first major oil company to destroy its U.S. research center. In 1998 BP acquired Amoco and in 2000 Arco, and proceeded to destroy their research centers too. Among the thousands of people who lost their jobs in both mergers were most of the acquired researchers. BP was not alone in raiding its precious resources and exchanging them for cash. I left the venerable Shell Development in 1989, the year it began falling apart; soon thereafter it disappeared altogether. This group gave us Hubbert’s peak, modern geophysics, 3D seismic data acquisition, petrophysics, and computer memory, the patent to which was sold to a typewriter company called IBM for one dollar. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Steve Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, both boast about their AT&T Bell Labs heritage, yet we do not hear that this once formidable laboratory was spun off by AT&T around 1995, and became a mere shadow of itself within five years.

After dismantling their own idea-breeding grounds, large corporations in need of research expertise must invade public institutions and “extract value” from them. Their strategy, to direct the vital functions of the university to further their corporate goals, is analogous to that of cancer or viruses. Like their biological analogs, these invader corporations alter and often destroy their hosts. Many juicy examples litter the historical record, but now UC Berkeley is to be altered irreversibly through the BP-Berkeley Energy Biosciences Institute.

BP is eager to place 50 of its own researchers in UC Berkeley. It is doubtful that BP alone has people to fill these positions, but researchers can probably be extracted from their business partners. These BP-related employees would be housed in buildings funded and equipped by the public. The public would then be blocked from entering the BP-occupied buildings. Most information would flow through and be filtered by the BP personnel and their UC Berkeley affiliates, who would need to sign non-disclosure agreements, making it impossible to distinguish between their private and public roles. For example, the chosen candidate to run the Berkeley side of the institute is Dr. Chris Somerville, CEO of Mendel Biotechnologies. Mendel Biotech is “completely aligned” (their own wording) with Monsanto and Savia Ltd. Monsanto controls most sales of GMO seeds worldwide. Savia is the world’s largest dealer of non-commodity crops: trees, flowers, vegetables, grasses, etc., and is deeply vested in GMO manipulations. Dr. Somerville’s company has received $46,000,000 from Monsanto and Savia to conduct research on genetically modified plants. If the BP-UC Berkeley contract were signed, Dr. Somerville would be busy genetically modifying plants at UC Berkeley to benefit Monsanto, DuPont, Savia and BP, while his wife, Dr. Shauna Somerville, would participate in finding new powerful pesticides and herbicides to protect the genetically modified plants from the environment. This effort would be led by another UC Berkeley professor, Brian Staskawicz, also with Mendel Biotechnologies.

To finish the job, the campus would register the new agrochemicals on behalf of the Somervilles, thus unburdening the corporate customers and producers from legal liabilities. As it may take decades to find out all deleterious effects of the new GMOs and their associated field poisons, these liabilities may be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

So if you think that Berkeley is getting a good deal here, think thrice or more, as this is how many times the public will pay for the activities of the happy new BP, UC Berkeley, Monsanto, Savia, DuPont, (and Cargill, and Mendel and Amyris) family. In the words of the social-sciences leader of the proposal, professor Dan Kammen: “A new ecosystem of companies will be generated” by the deal.

What about the science of it all, you may ask. Well, briefly put, the Earth is too small to deliver the grandiose promises made by some of our faculty and administrators. Genetically altered organisms will be released into the global environment, probably starting from the poor tropical countries with no controls, but plenty of land and solar radiation. If we are lucky, these GMO’s will die quickly outside of their controlled environments. If we are not so lucky, the Earth may be a different planet. So cheers everyone, let’s drink to this fabulous deal that would help the campus become a better corporation and a much worse public university. But if UC Berkeley becomes yet another corporation, will there be another great public university to take its place?


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