UC Berkeley News


Energy Biosciences Institute Q&A

| 12 April 2007

A more extensive version of this Q&A is available on the EBI website.

Q. How was the BP proposal developed?
A. In September 2006, Berkeley learned that it was among five universities selected by BP to apply for a $500 million biofuels-research award. (The others were Cambridge, MIT, Imperial College London, and UC San Diego.) Berkeley administrators immediately notified deans, directors, and chairs of the proposal, asking them to request faculty input to create an inventory of relevant research interests and capabilities on campus. Teams of senior administrators, faculty, and staff from Berkeley and LBNL met weekly to plan the scientific program and prepare the proposal, based on more than 60 responses from varied campus departments, including the social sciences.
A 90-page proposal was sent to BP on Nov. 24, and the award was announced Feb. 1.

Q. Was the Academic Senate informed about the development of the EBI proposal?
A. Yes, and the Senate was consulted throughout the development of the proposal. In early September, Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside alerted the Academic Senate leadership to the possible submission of a proposal and met with its Committee on Academic Planning and Resources Allocation (CAPRA). She continued to meet with CAPRA every two weeks and she, and/or Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Price, also met on several occasions with the Senate Committee on Research.

At these meetings, the outline of a Berkeley proposal to BP was met with general enthusiasm, as was news that the proposal would likely commit seven faculty FTEs to bioenergy. CAPRA was provided copies of the proposal that was sent to BP on Nov. 24.

Q. How are the mission and values of a public university protected in agreements (like the one proposed for EBI) with industry sponsors?
A. The University of California has extensive policies governing university-industry relations that have served Berkeley well through a long and productive history of collaboration with industry. Eight core principles safeguard academic values and address rights to future research results in contracts with external parties. They include open dissemination of research results and information, public benefit, and objective decision-making. These principles preserve the education, research, and public-service mission of the university while meeting the government’s mandate to speed the application of basic research to the benefit of society.

Q. How will the seven faculty FTE positions in the EBI proposal be selected?
A. All academic actions, including recruitment, merit review, and tenure review, are handled through the faculty member’s academic department. In the EBI hires, BP will not play a role. The campus administration has assured the Academic Senate’s Budget Committee that the seven FTEs will be hired through the normal review-and-appointment process. Budget Committee Chair Patrick Kirch said the committee is satisfied that the appropriate processes will be followed with respect to the FTE allocations.

Q. How will research projects be proposed and selected for EBI?
A. Academic research directions and programs will be initiated by EBI faculty and scientists. Details of the research-project solicitation and selection processes are under development and will be finalized in the contract-negotiation process.

Each year, the EBI is expected to allocate financial support to faculty investigators at the three partner institutions through a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

Faculty will be invited to submit a short pre-proposal that will be reviewed by the EBI executive committee. Those whose pre-proposals are a good fit with EBI’s research mission will be invited to submit a more detailed proposal and proposed budget, which will be reviewed by external colleagues with relevant expertise. EBI’s executive committee will submit its funding proposal to its governing board, which is responsible for final budget authorization.
Pre-proposals must be in one of five areas of emphasis: biofuel feedstocks; socio-economic issues associated with biofuels; depolymerization of biomass; biofuel production; and fossil-fuel bioprocessing, carbon sequestration, and microbially enhanced oil recovery.

Q. Where will EBI research be conducted?
A. Initially, EBI will be housed in Calvin Laboratory and Hildebrand Hall, with about 20 percent of the EBI space leased to BP researchers at local market rates; similar lease arrangements with industry partners exist at UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, and LBNL.

Within three years, EBI will move into part of a proposed new Helios building on campus land adjacent to LBNL. That building has been designed for research on alternative energy.

Q. How is academic freedom safeguarded in industry-sponsored research agreements like EBI?
A. UC Berkeley and the UC Office of the President have extensive policies in place to ensure the openness of the research enterprise and the freedom of UC faculty, postdocs, and students to publish their research results without restriction (see related story).

All industry research grants and contracts are reviewed by the Industry Alliances Office (IAO) of the Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances (IPIRA) to ensure that they do not carry restrictions on the freedom to publicly disseminate research results. Industry grants and contracts are also reviewed to ensure that their scope of work is not simply product development or product testing, which are not permitted by the UC system.

Q. How will the university safeguard against conflicts of interest with respect to BP?
A. UC and the Berkeley campus also have extensive policies dealing with conflicts of interest in research (see researchcoi.berkeley.edu/ coifaq.html). These policies will be applied to EBI, as they are applied to all other externally sponsored research awards. The conflict-of-interest policies are implemented by a seven-person committee, currently consisting of faculty members in the physical, chemical, biological, and social sciences, plus the director of the campus’s Office of Technology Licensing.

Q. Why will there be BP scientists on campus? What will their role be?
A. There ultimately may be up to 50 BP employees distributed between UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois. These employees will include BP staff, senior scientists, engineers, and technicians working in rented space on the two campuses and in laboratories adjacent to, but separate from, university scientists. This model is similar to how Intel employees currently work with Berkeley faculty and students at the Intel Berkeley Laboratory adjacent to campus, though in the case of BP, the rented labs will be located on campus property.

Such proximity encourages interaction between academic scientists and industry researchers, who have greater experience with developing commercial products. This close collaboration also provides early feedback to researchers about beneficial new technologies that will succeed in the marketplace.

Despite provisions in the contract that will keep the academic and BP researchers in separate labs, the universities may choose to invite BP researchers to collaborate on projects in academic labs, attend seminars, present lectures to classes, and generally participate in campus academic life.

Q. Will BP scientists have the rights of faculty? Will they advise students or set curricula?  
A. No. BP scientists will be granted visiting-industrial-fellow status. This status is frequently used on campus and is equivalent to visiting-scholar status. BP scientists will not advise graduate students.

Q. How will students benefit from having EBI on campus?
A. The goal of a graduate-education program is to prepare students for careers in academia, industry, government, or non-government organizations. Graduate-education components expected to be developed under EBI by EBI-affiliated faculty include new courses in evolving fields; seminar series; laboratory rotations between Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and LBNL; and programs to support student interests in bioenergy.

EBI also will enrich the undergraduate experience by sponsoring energy-based student interest groups; internships at bioenergy plants, businesses, farms, and feedstock-production facilities; research opportunities in EBI labs, and more.

Q. What is the campus precedent for research funding by industry?
A. UC and UC Berkeley actively encourage collaborative and sponsored research with industry, consistent with their educational mission and the principles of academic freedom. These partnerships give faculty and students new ideas, increase the commercial impact of research, and prepare students for non-academic careers. In the last two years, Berkeley has entered into 198 new sponsored-research and collaboration agreements and 85 new affiliate-program contracts to support research by private industry on the Berkeley campus.

Examples of products invented at UC Berkeley under corporate-sponsored research agreements include DNA-sequencing reagents and DNA sequencers (sponsored by Molecular Dynamics and subsequently commercialized through Amersham and GE due to acquisition); drug-development tools (sponsored by KineMed); and an algorithm for scheduling information flow through network switches in Internet routers (commercialized by Pacific Bell, Bellcore, and a microelectronics consortium).

Q. Will EBI research involve genetically modified organisms?
A. EBI’s main focus in regard to plants will be identifying the most suitable species for use as energy crops; improving methods of conventional breeding, propagation, planting, harvesting, and storage; and ensuring that these methods do not adversely impact food production or create environmental damage. It is anticipated that GMOs may be developed for research purposes, but the emphasis in plant improvement will be on conventional breeding of energy crops.

Genetically modified microbes will be developed to convert lignocellulosic biomass into fuel. These genetically engineered microbes will be confined to reactors in a processing facility and designed so that they cannot survive outside the production process. Today’s pharmaceutical, plant, and chemical industries safely use genetically engineered yeast and bacteria in the same way to produce medicines, food ingredients, and industrial chemicals.

Q. Will anything in the contract being negotiated with BP require an exception to UC policy?
A. Though contract negotiations are still under way, Berkeley anticipates nothing in the contract that is new to UC. Only in its size does the BP contract differ from other industry partnerships at Berkeley.

The contract with BP is anticipated to require two exceptions to standard UC policy, both relatively common across the UC system. One will allow BP to elect to obtain a non-exclusive, royalty-free license to intellectual property (IP) that is funded entirely by BP in an EBI project. The second will be required to grant joint ownership of IP rights when both Berkeley and BP inventors are legally named as creators of a new invention.

Q. Will BP use UC’s name and reputation to enhance its image in ads and public-relations efforts?
A. The agreement will contain a standard clause that requires either party to receive written approval prior to using the other party’s name or trademark in any advertisement, press release, or publicity that references the agreement or any product or service resulting from the agreement.