San Diego

Debate is intensifying at the University of California, Berkeley, over a $500-million energy research partnership with BP. The energy company announced on 1 February that it will fund a decade of alternative-energy research by Berkeley and its partners. But concerns are spreading across the campus about the propriety of the industrial relationship.

Some fear that the pact — for which final details are still being worked out — could be a repeat of a controversial $25-million contract that the university entered into in 1998 with the biotech giant Novartis (see Nature 399, 5; doi:10.1038/19807 1999). That deal expired in 2003, amid criticism that the academic freedom of some university researchers had been compromised (see Nature 426, 591–594; 2003).

The University of California, Berkeley, is to be home to an energy research centre in a partnership with BP. Credit: M. E. GIBSON/CORBIS

Berkeley and its partners, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, beat four other universities in a six-week competition for cash from the energy company. The research agenda for the initiative has been drawn up by a group of Berkeley researchers. It aims to use biotechnology to develop new energy sources, for example genetically modifying plants for use as fuels, and using enzymes to convert plant material into fuel more efficiently, as well as studying how these new methods might affect agriculture and society.

During forthcoming budget negotiations, California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to push the state for $40 million in bonds to pay for a new building called the Energy Biosciences Institute, where BP-funded researchers would work. The building would house university professors and students, along with perhaps 50 industry scientists.

Industry funds a lot of research on public and private university campuses, and it's fairly common for companies to have labs located near institutes where industry and academic researchers work together — as Intel and Yahoo do at Berkeley, for example. But it's rare for industry to house its scientists in public buildings on state university property.

To seasoned industry critics, such as Berkeley entomologist Miguel Altieri, the deal is just one more step in “the rapid, unchecked and unprecedented global corporate alignment of the world's largest agribusiness, biotech, petroleum and automotive industries”. He fears that for “a relatively small investment”, BP can benefit from public resources and cash in on inventions developed with taxpayers' money.

Berkeley's leaders have taken steps to address expected faculty concerns about the deal's impact on campus freedom and intellectual property. Berkeley executives consulted leaders in the Academic Senate early in the bidding process, and the feedback was blunt, says senate chair William Drummond: “No more Novartis deals.”

Drummond says that a senate representative will be closely involved in all negotiations with BP: “We want to make sure the university's pockets are not picked.” Beth Burnside, Berkeley's vice-chancellor for research, who is helping to negotiate the deal, says that established campus controls will monitor conflicts of interest and issues of intellectual property and academic freedom. BP may have first right of refusal on Berkeley inventions from the collaboration, she says, but licences won't necessarily be exclusive.

The new institute will be built conveniently close to another energy-research endeavour, the Helios Project. This will be directed by officials at LBNL, which is a Department of Energy facility managed by the University of California. Helios has been in the pipeline for three years, as part of a shift in LBNL's mission towards renewable-energy projects, but has been unable to secure start-up funding from the Department of Energy. Instead, Schwarzenegger will push the state legislature for $30 million in bonds to pay for the building.

More controversially, the BP competition occurred alongside a volatile political campaign in California to create a $4-billion public research programme into alternative energy sources, funded via a severance tax on oil firms. Energy companies spent $108 million on advertisements against the measure, Proposition 87, on last November's ballot. Schwarzenegger refused to back Proposition 87, and critics are upset that, instead, he is supporting a deal that they see as enabling one of those energy companies to benefit from public facilities. Schwarzenegger argues that the BP deal fits California's plans for developing cleaner energy in an economical manner.

The losing bidders were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, San Diego; Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, UK. Imperial's rector Richard Sykes notes that his university had costed its bid so no public funds would be used. He says BP told Imperial that its bid wasn't economical. “We thought that was interesting,” he comments.

Scrutiny of the Energy Biosciences Institute and its mission is likely to continue. “The debate is going to increase,” says Berkeley physicist Daniel Kammen, who helped write Proposition 87 and the BP proposal. “But I think this is worth trying. BP knows this is a difficult gig; they are not shying away from it.”