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UC Berkeley: The 21st Century: GMOs and Corporate Agendas

Historical Essay
by Josh Hardman
Part 6 of 6 in A History of Repression at UC Berkeley.

An undergraduate student is arrested after pouring ‘fake oil’ on the ground in protest of the BP deal.
Photo: Indybay

Though the contemporary image of UC Berkeley often invokes progressive elements of its recent history (epitomised by the on-campus Free Speech Movement Café), the conservative, repressive nature of the administration continues to rear its head. Berkeley has played a prominent role in the development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), having negotiated sizeable monetary deals with pharmaceutical, agribusiness, and oil giants. It must be stated that GMOs are not inherently problematic, but rather it is the University’s solicitation of funds from large corporations that is of concern, along with the potential for academics to enable a monopolisation of GMOs, and to insulate GMO research from oversight in a similar fashion to the nuclear Labs. One of the most famous cases of the 2000s was that of Ignacio Chapela, an esteemed assistant professor of microbiology and chairman of the College of Natural Resources executive committee who, from 1998, questioned the ethical and economic implications of the $25 million deal between UC Berkeley and Novartis - a large drug and agri-business corporation. The terms of Novartis’ financial contribution to UC Berkeley included the disclosure of trade secrets to the corporation and first rights to licensing negotiations on around one third of the department’s discoveries, which would give the giant a competitive edge and a potential monopoly.

Chapela was denied tenure in 2003, in spite of a 32-1 vote in his favour by colleagues in his faculty (Spring 2002), and an ad hoc tenure committee of five voting unanimously in his favour (October 2002). It was ultimately a five-member faculty Budget Committee that recommended against his tenure in November 2003, however one professor on this board - Jasper Rine - served on the advisory committee for the Novartis deal. While the Chancellor declared that there was no conflict of interest, Chapela’s supporters attributed his tenure denial to his vocal anti-Novartis stance [1]. In fact, an independent report of the Novartis deal published by Michigan State University in 2004 claimed “there is little doubt that the UCB-Novartis agreement played a role in [Chapela’s denial of tenure]” [2]. Due to conflicts within and between faculty and the administration, Chapela’s tenure review took far longer than usual (beginning in September 2001), which enabled his international and on-campus supporters to rally around his case. In one iconic act, Chapela lugged his desk outside and held his office hours in front of California Hall - a powerful public protest. Chapela was eventually awarded tenure in May 2005.

Students rally against the Novartis deal and Chapela’s tenure denial.
Photo: SFGate

Chapela’s tenure battle and the Novartis deal controversy were not the final incidents, for in 2007 a historic $500 million deal was struck between British Petroleum (BP), UC Berkeley, and the University of Illinois for a ten-year research contract. Berkeley faculty and graduate students were to help BP scientists design and implement genetically modified plants and microbes for use in the biofuel industry. Chapela, now tenured, and his colleague Miguel Altieri raised objections to the deal, arguing the project would displace farmland desperately needed for crops in poorer nations and substitute them for patented crops owned by large multinational corporations. Chapela and Altieri’s concerns were ignored by the administration, with the UC Regents signing the deal and initiating the building of a new research facility - the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) - which was named by BP. University officials described it as “the first public-private institution of this scale in the world” [3], eclipsing a $113 million contribution from the Hewlett Foundation and a $10 million research program by Dow Chemical, both of which were also finalised in 2007. The deal began to fracture in 2015, when BP utilised a contract clause to pull nearly a third of its projected funding for the year, citing plummeting oil prices and the cost of its clean-up operation following the calamitous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico [4]. Thus, the sad irony is that the largest oil spill in history and plummeting oil prices have resulted in a substantial reduction in Berkeley’s funding for research into cleaner, renewable biofuels at a time when the need for alternatives to oil was most blatant. Obtaining funding from BP therefore not only raises ethical problems, but it also places essential, forward-thinking research in a fragile and volatile space, at the whims of market forces and the mutable corporate interests these produce [5].

At the heart of these conflicts are the tensions that emerge from the convergence of university and corporate research agendas [6], and the threat to academic freedom this poses. Scientists are being forced to adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset, and universities are inclined to solicit ever-larger proportions of private investment due to cutbacks in government funding. In the fall of 1964, undergraduate student Mario Savio took to the steps of Sproul Hall to publicly denounce the university for going out of its way to “serve the need of American industry”, and argued it represented “a factory that turns out a certain product needed by industry” [7]. Savio’s damning critique of the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of UC Berkeley was punctuated in a number of speeches and publications such as the Radical Student Union’s The Uses of U.C. Berkeley: Research [8], and seems as relevant today as it was in the 1960s; all the more so with the election of President Trump who will continue to squeeze public university funding, especially in areas such as climate change [9].

Mario Savio delivers a speech to students on campus, December 7th 1964
Photo: Robert W. Klein/AP

Concluding Remarks and Questions

What lessons can we learn from this brief history? First and foremost, it should serve as a warning, or reminder, that we must not rely on the University administration to act justly, or to stave off further corporate capture of academia. Historically, the administration has proven its affiliations and has been at best complicit in, and at worst active agents of, this process and its acceleration. It has been the determined actions of committed faculty and students [10] – in spite of the repressive efforts of the University - that has generated friction in the gears of bureaucracy, and resulted in progressive change. We must continue this legacy, for if we fail to resist the tide of privatisation we stand to lose not only academic freedom and progressive research agendas, but also the fundamental ability of the University to play a positive role in the public sphere.

Privatisation of the Public University has emerged hand-in-hand with government cutbacks to higher education funding, and we must assume this trajectory will continue. Ex-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s appointment as President of the University in 2013 further warrants this bleak outlook, with the graduate student union announcing: “We fear that this decision will further expand the privatization, mismanagement, and militarized repression of free speech that characterized Mark Yudof’s presidency and will threaten the quality and accessibility of education” [11]. Combine this with President Trump’s palpable threats to many research agendas, and his close ties with private interests despite an anti-establishment campaign platform, and it should be clear that this crisis will prevail. It is therefore of significant urgency that we defend the gains we have inherited, and fight back at the University’s dereliction of its responsibilities and repressive tendencies.

It is not only corporate capture of the University that should be troubling, but also the powerful ideological influence of the administration [12]. The McCarthy era had far-reaching implications for the campus community, heightening and legitimising pre-existing anti-communist fervour among the administration and providing the space in which repression was deemed necessary. We should be keen to notice the persistent role of ideological influences in higher education, such as the threats to academic freedom since September 11 [13] born out of resurgent patriotism and Islamophobia.

Ultimately, we must answer one question: what role do we want our public universities to play? Historically, UC Berkeley has provided the local community with harsh policing tactics, and the national community with suspect nuclear weapons schemes: exploiting the veil of the ivory tower. Now, we – as members of the public - must assume ownership of this question, and reclaim the college from the grips of private interests.

Thank you for reading.

Part 1: The Early 20th Century
Part 2: The Loyalty Oath Controversy, 1949-51
Part 3: The Closure of the School of Criminology, 1976
Part 4: Fighting for Tenure
Part 5: Nuclear Weapons and Whistleblowers
Part 6: The 21st Century: GMOs and Corporate Agendas


[1] …along with an anti-GMO article later redacted by Nature magazine: Milius, Susan. 2016. "Journal Disowns Transgene Report". Science News Online.
[2] Busch and Fairweather, et al.. 2004. External Review Of The Collaborative Research Agreement Between Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc. And The Regents Of The University Of California. Institute For Food And Agricultural Standards (IFAS). East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, 42
[3] Sanders, Robert. 2007. "Energy Biosciences Institute Contract Signed". Berkeley.Edu.
[4] Neumann, Erik. 2007. "Not So Fast: At UC Berkeley, Biofuel Research Takes Hit As BP Oil Company Backs Away". Cal Alumni Association.
[5] It would be amiss to not mention the battles fought by Chapela’s colleague Tyrone Hayes, who waged a formidable – and admittedly somewhat bizarre - battle against atrazine-manufacturer Syngenta. Hayes’ battle has been omitted from this history as the University didn’t have much involvement, however it offers a sobering insight into the efforts corporations are going through to discourage and silence critical research, with Syngenta representatives physically following Hayes around the world to disrupt his speaking engagements. A summary of the conflict can be found here: Slater, Dashka. 2012. "The Frog Of War". Mother Jones.
[6] On this note, see the Atlantic’s long read on the Academic-Industrial Complex: Press, Eyal and Jennifer Washburn. 2000. "The Kept University". The Atlantic.
[7] Mario Savio, An End To History speech, delivered 2nd December 1964, The University of California at Berkeley
[8] Radical Student Union,. 1969. The Uses Of U.C. Berkeley: Research. Berkeley
[9] To learn more about the conservative’s assault on Higher Education funding in the United States, consider watching Steve Mims’ documentary Starving the Beast, 2016
[10] Some of these individuals and communities were radicals, but many were not. The Loyalty Oath Controversy, for example, infuriated a huge contingent of faculty; many of who were otherwise somewhat ‘apolitical’.
[11] Bond-Graham, Darwin. 2013. "The University Of California And The Military Industrial Complex". Counterpunch.
[12] Insofar as they can be understood as distinct from one another.
[13] Nocella, Anthony J, Steven Best, and Peter McLaren. 2010. Academic Repression. 1st ed. Edinburgh: AK Press.