University of California - BP
Energy Biosciences Institute

an Essential Action site

Public Universities and BP's Energy Biosciences Institute: Emergence of the Corporate Campus?

Essential Action's analysis of the
Energy Biosciences Institute grant proposal

On February 1, 2007, BP committed $500 million to create what appears to be the largest university-industry partnership in U.S. history with the University of California at Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), dedicated to problems related to global energy production and expected to research primarily biofuels, would encompass 24 laboratories on the three campuses, representing an unprecedented occupation of university space and cooption of public resources by a corporation. Though contract negotiations between the universities and BP reportedly near conclusion, the text of the agreement has not been made public. But the universities' original grant proposal, accepted by BP and serving as the initial basis of the agreement, creates several concerns:

1) It appears BP will be able to conduct private operations on public university campuses.

According to the universities' proposal, EBI would occupy new and existing research facilities on the U.C. Berkeley, LBNL and U.I. Urbana-Champaign campuses, some of which will be closed to non-BP personnel, and all of which would assist BP in commercializing new energy technologies.

2) It appears substantial public investments in facilities, infrastructure and personnel will subsidize BP's for-profit business.

The universities' proposal offers public spending "incentive elements" to BP. [1]  For example, the proposed Institute's facilities would be state-of-the-art, capturing some of the public universities' best existing laboratory space. The State of California pledged $40 million plus $30 million in California Lease Revenue bonds and $30 million in University of California bonds to construct new wet laboratory space for the Institute's use. [2]  Illinois has donated 340 acres of land. EBI staff would be given access to university services and amenities such as housing, libraries, dining and parking. The universities would construct "telepresence" meeting rooms to facilitate interaction between the multiple campuses, and even hire 10 new faculty members in specific fields of interest to the Energy Biosciences Institute. [3]  BP will contribute substantial funds to the venture too, of course, but it is the party with a commercial interest in controlling resulting technologies.

3) EBI appears set to place control of new energy technologies discovered at public universities in the hands of a global oil giant.

The EBI proposal describes a licensing scheme for technologies developed at EBI. BP would retain universal options (time-limited but renewable) to exclusively license and commercialize inventions developed in the Institute's shared university/BP facilities, even inventions developed entirely by university scientists (provided they are BP-funded). [4]  In EBI's closed facilities, BP would own all inventions developed, and researchers would have no obligation to publish research performed. [5]  These provisions could lock the public into BP corporate control of new energy technologies for many years. There is also reason to fear BP will be given preferential access to technologies invented with government monies.

4) EBI may divert university resources from the most useful research to the most profitable research.

EBI would employ top university researchers and prime lab space, to say nothing of the new university personnel and facilities contracted specifically to serve the Institute's interests. EBI would appoint BP representatives to "high-level" positions on its governing committees, [6]  likely influencing choices concerning which projects EBI researchers should pursue. BP's role in Institute governance, proprietary interest in technologies developed, and the vast scale of the proposed Institute suggest EBI may significantly shift the universities' research foci in coming years, valuing profitable technologies that benefit BP independently of whether the research is socially beneficial. Such choices could constitute a significant opportunity cost to the public, as fewer university resources would be available to address pressing and purely public needs. Why should a major carbon polluter have a structured role in establishing a public university's research agenda, especially on matters so crucial as alternative energy?

5) It seems EBI will enable BP to close on-campus facilities to university personnel and grant BP space for secret research on public campuses.

The universities' proposal offers to lease BP private research facilities for BP employees on the public U.C. Berkeley campus. [7]  These facilities would be off limits to U.C. Berkeley personnel. [8]  Within the closed facilities, BP would own all inventions developed, and researchers would have no obligation to publish research performed. [9]  There may be no precedent for such absolute ceding of public university space to secret, for-profit industry research.

6) A $500 million, ten-year research alliance with a giant international corporation is likely to change the character of research and education at U.C. Berkeley, LBNL and U.I. Urbana-Champaign.

According to the universities' proposal:

"From the very first days of program implementation, BP and EBI host research staff will be embedded within the campus research environment. This immersion will foster close collaboration and initiate a strong and productive research program with highly sustainable intellectual ties." [10]

"It is anticipated that all members of the EBI will interact seamlessly as part of the campus communities. We expect to develop opportunities for BP scientists to mentor undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows; to participate in the design and development of courses and seminar series; and to audit undergraduate and graduate courses." [11]

It is difficult to imagine that an industry collaboration of EBI's scale would not affect the character of educational experience at U.C. Berkeley, U.I. Urbana-Champaign and LBNL. Universities provide a critical space to researchers and young adults as they develop theories and moral convictions, relatively insulated from the priorities and pressures of commercial interests that permeate most work environments. If EBI, as envisioned by the partner universities' proposal, is approved, the ideal of academic communities interested in knowledge for knowledge's sake is likely to suffer beyond the boundaries of the Universities of California and Illinois.

1. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, pages 86-87, available at:

2. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, pages 86, 90-91, Letter from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to The Right Honorable Lord Browne of Madingley.

3. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, page 86.

4. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, pages 72-73. The proposal allocates licensing rights to BP for projects "fully funded" by BP. It states, at page 72, "U.S. government rights will be reserved: a) for inventions arising from U.S. federal funding at the UCB and UIUC campuses…"

5. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, pages 71-72.

6. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, page 9.

7. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, page 71.

"The proprietary component will be carried out by BP personnel in a central Berkeley campus location under an operating lease. BP personnel will engage in proprietary research in the leased space and will have no obligation to publish research performed in the leased space. UCB, LBNL, and UIUC research personnel should be excluded entirely from the space in the performance of their university activities." Id.

8. Id.

9. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, pages 71-72.

10. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, page 9.

11. Energy Biosciences Institute proposal, page 86.