Big science and Berkeley's soul

As state funds shrivel, faculty reflect on how to avoid the potential pitfalls of campus's growing dependence on private research dollars

| 20 November 2008

Christopher KutzChristopher Kutz (Jim Block photo)

Berkeley's faculty voted overwhelmingly last year to endorse the Energy Biosciences Institute — a $500 million research partnership initiated and funded by energy giant BP — in the face of fears in some quarters about growing corporate influence on the academy. Prompted by those concerns, a faculty task force has concluded that the risks posed by large-scale university-industry collaborations are real but manageable, and that corporate funding "can be pursued in a way consonant with Berkeley's distinctive values, excellence, and mission."

To judge by last week's session of the campus's Academic Senate, however, some worries remain about the trend toward increased reliance on private funding, whether from multinational corporations or individual philanthropists.

"Inevitably, anything this big and complicated, that involves this much money, absorbs a great deal of time and energy from people on campus," suggested Janet Broughton, Berkeley's dean of arts and humanities, during a panel discussion in Barrows Hall's Lipman Room. "One question I would like to put on the table for all of us is… how can we be sure that that does not distort our collective sense of the mission of our university?"

That, in a nutshell, is the question the task force sought to tackle, albeit mostly from the standpoint of scientific research. Summarizing its 23-page report, law professor Christopher Kutz — who, like the majority of the eight-member task force, served on a faculty advisory committee for the EBI contract negotiations — said the group "tried to take some of what we learned" from that experience, and to lay down guidelines for future collaborations.

Although corporate funding poses the possibility of an "unintended shift" in the campus's research priorities, said Kutz, the potential for such problems can be headed off through a process of formalized consultation between university administrators and faculty.

"A generic danger in large-scale collaborations," says the report, "is that scarce resources at Berkeley, especially faculty time and effort, will be diverted towards projects that are of greater interest to an industrial partner than to the public at large. The financial stakes grounding the collaboration also make possible financial conflicts of interest for academic participants.

"While we recognize and acknowledge this danger, we also believe it can easily be overstated," it continues, adding that many projects of interest to corporate sponsors — even in cases where a company is given exclusive patent rights to the resulting research — "will also generate substantial benefits to the university and the public."

Furthermore, it adds, diversions of faculty and student-researcher time to the interests of private funders "are hardly unique to industrial partners," but "apply to any large source of funding," including the federal government. "We simply caution against a knee-jerk response that industrial funding is inherently more suspect, in terms of the merit of the projects being funded, than any other sources of funding."

The report does offer a warning on the potential for conflicts of interest when profit-minded corporations are deeply involved in university research. "The possibilities of conflict between faculty members' roles as members of the university, and their possible roles as consultants, entrepreneurs, or stakeholders in the external partners, may be especially acute in the large-scale collaborations at issue here," it says. But it maintains that existing policies "should be sufficient to govern large-scale collaborations without modification."

Kutz, echoing the report's recommendations, called on Chancellor Birgeneau to seek to loosen the UC system's control over the campus's licensing program, which he lauded as more creative and "forward-looking" than systemwide practices. "This is an area where we've run into trouble with the lawyers at UCOP," said Kutz, who directs the Kadish Center for Morality, Law, and Public Affairs.

In the discussion that followed his presentation, five faculty members — four of them administrators — praised the task-force report, though some had lingering concerns about the shape of Berkeley scholarship in a world of shrinking state budgets and growing dependence on private sources of research funds.

Broughton, while voicing support for scientific research, made a plea "to be mindful of the existence and importance of inquiry and discovery and knowledge in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences — the things that are not Big Science."

She also expressed concerns about what she called "donor-centric philanthropy," noting that a humanities dean at another UC campus recently told her a donor had offered the school money to launch a program in "vampire studies." While that offer was turned down, she said, it illustrates the difficulties fundraisers can face in trying to steer private donors toward scholarship more in keeping with the university's academic agenda.

Richard Mathies, dean of the College of Chemistry, observed that colleges and departments were increasingly being turned into "independent contractors," though he quickly added that "we're pretty good at it, and getting better."

More worrisome, Mathies said, is the direction of research — funded by public and private sources alike — toward "goal- and mission-oriented projects," as opposed to "blue sky" or "curiosity-driven" research. "I actually still think that's a good idea," he said, referring to what he called "purely innovative and creative" work. "It's really hard to do that right now."

History professor Carla Hesse, too, wondered about how to defend "the conditions of possibility for learning and knowledge production," rather than specific projects. She noted the "special challenges in the humanities and the social sciences," where she said infrastructure costs are more critical than research funding.

For disciplines whose research projects are not capital-intensive, added Hesse, the problem is more "how are we going to pay for things" than what to do with the money.

As for concerns about private funding, George Breslauer, the campus's executive vice chancellor and provost, cited Berkeley's long history of support by philanthropists like Phoebe Apperson Hearst and the Haas family. He also pointed to a half-century of research funding by foundations and federal government agencies, noting there were "always strings attached" to such grants.

"The university was never solely supported by the state," observed Breslauer, who asked rhetorically if "increased dependence" on private funding is "likely to alter the way we do research or the way we teach" at Berkeley.

"My answer," he said, "is yes, but not much."