Edward R. Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

Jonas Salk: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?

Sustainable energy research is of critical importance today given the various environmental and economic crises we face. Unfortunately, the BP-EBI contract between British Petroleum and UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute is fundamentally flawed because 1) it threatens the academic integrity and diversity of UC Berkeley, 2) has blatant conflicts of interest and pushes a fossil fuel research agenda in the form of genetically modified microbes used for tar sands oil extraction, and 3) because BP has proven its untrustworthiness as a defender of public good, as evident from BP’s devastating oil spill in the gulf of Mexico only 4 years ago.

The BP-EBI deal is a corporatization scheme aimed at the world’s #1 public education and research institute, which socializes the costs and privatizes the benefits of a massive, long-term research venture. For $500M – which amounts to only 0.01% of BP’s annual gross profit of $45Billion- BP has bought the patent rights of up to 30% of the results produced by the top minds of the EBI for 10 years, between 2007 and 2017, with rumors of an extension of 5 more years. This ensures that the EBI’s top researchers either find no useful alternative to fossil fuels –since a primary research focus of the EBI is to make it “easier to access hard-to-reach domestic oil reserves [in order to] help ensure that oil remains part of a diverse mix of energy choices”[1]- or that BP owns the patents to the products which could threaten the profits of the oil-military industrial empire.

The vast ocean of conflicts of interest within the BP-EBI deal are well beyond the scope of this article; hence, I will only focus on two major conflicts of interest evident in the composition of two key entities of the EBI :

1) The governing board of the EBI which “has the responsibility to define, oversee, and review the implementation of EBI programs in the open component of research [and which] also appoints the EBI Director and Deputy Director”[2] is primarily influenced by BP representatives. The governing board composition (8 members) is as follows:

  • 4 BP executives
  • 2 UC Berkeley administrators
  • 1 University of Illinois administrator
  • 1 LBNL executive

2) The EBI’s Executive Committee which is “the primary steward of the EBI’s mission implementation [in that it] reviews and recommends the yearly research program and develops operating policies and practices”[3] is almost entirely bought and paid for by BP. The executive board composition (13 members) is as follows:

  • 2 BP executives
  • 1 major stockholder in “Mendel Biotechnology” which develops cellulosic biofuels (one of the EBI’s research areas), and in which BP has major equity stakes
  • 10 academic faculty, 9 of whose research is funded by BP

Given this evidence, it is clear that the BP-EBI contract was only approved because its advocates misrepresented the intentions of BP and the implications of such partnership. Those advocates maliciously ignored convincing appeals to rationality and morality by prominent faculty, students, and community members.

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References:

[1] http://www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org/research/fossilfuel

[2] http://www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org/content/ebi-leadership#3

[3] http://www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org/content/ebi-leadership#2

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