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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In short, while the AMP continues the shift toward market-driven applied research, its supporters maintain that academic integrity will not be harmed. And by folding a wide range of partners into the AMP, and spurring widespread economic growth, supporters say the research will stay true to UC Berkeley's public-service mission.


The future, however, looks grim for basic science at Cal. And while no one knows which projects will be axed as a result of federal sequestration, a look at some recent federal research grants provides a glimpse into what types of research could be sacrificed in the future as universities are forced to depend even more on corporate sponsors.

This past January, UC Berkeley Earth & Planetary Science professor Bruce Buffett received a grant from the National Science Foundation to research the deep interior of the earth. While understanding the internal dynamics of our planet won't produce any immediate economic benefits, it could help people better adapt to global warming. "Rearrangement of continents can alter the circulation in the oceans and even alter the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," Buffett wrote an email. "A better understanding of climate change in the geological past can provide valuable insights for predicting climate change in the future." 

In February, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded a research grant to UC Berkeley Molecular and Cell Biology professor Greg Barton, allowing him to study how bacterial pathogens develop to evade the human immune system. "Understanding the interplay between pathogens and the immune system is a critical aspect of combating infectious diseases," said Barton. "It's quite relevant to public health in general."

Federal funding will also allow Berkeley scientists to study ancient radiation, solar flares, and brain chemistry this year. This type of research lays the groundwork for future discoveries and can even lead to long-term economic rewards, but due to federal cutbacks, it has become increasingly rare.

Some scientists, though, feel that the shift away from purely basic research and towards applied research is necessary. They argue that applied science will better help humanity overcome such modern-day problems as climate change, overpopulation, and dwindling natural resources.

And many UC Berkeley administrators believe that more private funding is the only possible future for the university. Last August, then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau addressed the financial conundrum facing the university, telling students that "we're in the ironic position that to guarantee our public character, we need to increase substantially our private support."

Departing UC President Mark Yudof regularly argues that, due to shrinking state support, the UC needs to stop viewing itself as a public institution and instead consider itself a "hybrid" university, with many characteristics more in line with private institutions than public ones. "We will have to adjust to this new reality, or, I believe, [we] will cease to be the centers for innovation and significant research," he wrote in a 2002 issue of Change magazine.

Yet while some UC Berkeley researchers have stayed true to the university's public-service mission while still accepting large sums of private cash, the commercialization of science has many unintended consequences. "The humanities and most of the social sciences aren't as effective at generating income, and that means we have a harder job in trying to establish the value of what it is we do on the campus," noted Berkeley history professor James Vernon.

Such thinking also could justify funding cuts for programs that aren't "profitable," thereby reinforcing the belief that higher education in the United States should primarily serve as an engine for economic growth.

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