The University of Private Enterprise 

The infusion of corporate cash at UC Berkeley has drastically changed the type of scientific research conducted on campus.

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Some other public-private partnerships, such as the one Cal has with BP, designate a portion of the research results as property of the investing company. Wright also noted that professors have full autonomy in choosing what to research at the CITRIS lab. "No one is telling me what I should work on as a faculty member, and the students have the same freedom as well."

During the fall semester, I spoke with a half-dozen graduate students after a class at CITRIS. All of them believed that, thanks to the protections put in place by Wright and his colleagues, the benefits of working alongside industry outweigh the dangers. But it was also apparent that the presence of corporate sponsors on campus is affecting students' views of basic science research. "As an undergraduate, you learn all of this theory and it's nothing practical," said Alex Heller, an engineering Ph.D student. "With these corporate entities, though, I can see where this skill set is practical, and where I can use it in the future."

Mark Fuge, a third-year engineering Ph.D student, said that having corporate sponsors gave him a certain level of financial security that he would otherwise lack. "It's a couple thousand dollars for a company to sponsor a team," he said. "That's nothing for them, but for the teams, having a working budget to develop these technologies is everything."

One student noted that having access to private funding also affects choices made on campus. "A lot of times, without even noticing it, I chose to work on something just because it will let me be funded," said physics Ph.D student Shiry Ginzaw. She added that she doesn't do basic science, in part, because there's likely no financial payoff in the near- or long-term. "I think basic research is interesting, but I don't do it because I wouldn't be paid as a physics student, and I probably wouldn't find a job afterwards. ... A lot of the choices I've made are because the money is in one place and it's not in another."


During the 1970s, roughly 62 percent of government-funded research was basic research — science for the sake of science. Between 2000 and 2010, that number dropped more than 12 percentage points. Government, in other words, has not only cut scientific funding overall, but the research it is funding is increasingly geared to help corporate America compete in the global marketplace.

At UC Berkeley, a school once dedicated to pursuing long-term scientific discoveries, research is more often viewed today as an engine for economic growth. As one English professor put it during a panel discussion on the future of the UC last year, "administrators are attempting to turn the university ever more completely into an institution of global capitalism."

UC Berkeley's Energy Biosciences Institute, for example, is the largest public-private partnership of its kind in the world. Primarily funded by BP, the institute is trying to develop cheaper and more efficient biofuels. While the resulting technology could provide widespread benefits, BP's main goal is to position itself as a leader in the potentially lucrative world of alternative energy technologies.

Another growing field of applied research on campus is robotics. The global market for robots is expected to grow from $1.3 billion in 2009 to more than $5 billion in 2015. The CITRIS lab recently partnered with Silicon Valley robot developer Willow Garage to create a robot that can fold clothes. CITRIS researchers are also working to develop a robot that can assist in surgery. The Berkeley Laboratory for Automation Science and Engineering also specializes in robotic research, and has eight corporate partners.

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) is another example of a market-driven research project. However, unlike some other public-private partnerships, the AMP is composed of a wide range of public and private agencies, nonprofits, and universities, including Cal. Although its goal is much loftier than creating profitable products for individual companies, it nonetheless emphasizes applied research rather than basic science. The AMP is designed to help reinvigorate the nation's advanced manufacturing sector, and in the process, stabilize the economy. "Our mission is not to do core fundamental research," explained Berkeley engineering professor David Dornfeld, who is the faculty spokesperson for the partnership, "but instead to transfer research into practice."

According to a federal report released last year, advanced manufacturing is the most productive industry in the country — for every high-end manufacturing job, sixteen other jobs are created. Over the past decade, however, the nation has lost one-third of its manufacturing workforce, due in large part to its inability to compete globally. As a result, President Barack Obama drafted a proposal last year to invest $1 billion in the AMP.

The AMP hopes to create a more efficient pipeline between academia and industry. Under the current system, a good amount of research gets bogged down in what's often referred to as "the valley of death" — the nebulous period between design and manufacturing. "We're going to build a bridge between the research that's going on in universities and small companies, finding a way to scale that up into production," said Dornfeld. The partnership also proposes rewriting domestic and international tax policies, which would create a more favorable business climate nationwide.

While the nature of the AMP is to create commercialized products, its structure will ensure that no single investor wields too much power. Along with Berkeley engineers, the partnership will include dozens of small- to mid-size industrial firms, a few major companies, and officials at the National Institute of Science. Local community colleges will also be included in the partnership, and a nonprofit will coordinate all the research. "It won't be as directly tied to the bottom line of any single company as some of the other [public-private partnerships] might appear to be," said Dornfeld. "It's not going to be like, 'I'm giving you millions of dollars, now I want to have first dibs on the next product you create.' It's going to be more of a traditional, consortium-based research group."

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