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Some question BP's funding of UC Berkeley research lab

A picture of an oiled bird is taped to the wall above Charlie Anderson's desk inside a UC Berkeley lab. The cormorant, drenched in reddish-brown oil, lies limp on a Louisiana shore, water rippling around its splayed wings.

On a hook next to the picture hangs Anderson's white lab coat, embroidered with the words "Energy Biosciences Institute."

The connection between the crisp lab coat in Berkeley and the oiled bird more than 2,000 miles away is BP, the petroleum company responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history. BP sponsors the Energy Biosciences Institute at Cal, a buzzing lab of 300 researchers trying to make fuel out of plants.

It may seem incongruous that an oil company responsible for such environmental devastation is funding this effort to find green fuels and reduce oil use. But the scientists here say what they're doing is more important than where they get the money.

"Everybody here at EBI is interested in coming up with solutions that will eliminate the need to search for oil in ways that are dangerous," Anderson said.

"What the oil spill has done is add urgency to that mission."

For some, however, the spill also has raised new questions about a research partnership that has been controversial from the start, marrying the profit-driven interests of a global oil company with the brains and cachet of one of the world's top universities.

The $500 million BP pledged in 2007 to form the Energy Biosciences Institute was the largest corporate sponsorship ever of university research. The gift — doled out over 10 years to UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — created an institute to research plant-based fuels such as ethanol.

Critics accused BP of "greenwashing," trying to buy a more environmentally friendly image. Others questioned whether the university could maintain its academic integrity while taking such a large corporate gift. They feared the deal would blur the lines between the company's mission to make money and the university's to create knowledge.

Now, with BP oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental disaster is causing some to wonder whether Berkeley should continue the relationship. The contract allows the university to pull out if "a discrete event were to occur" that violates UC Berkeley's principles.

And those principles, according to guidelines written by Cal professors, say the university "should avoid any collaboration that would render it an active participant in criminal conduct, human rights violations, or environmental despoliation." The guidelines also say the university should sever ties with companies engaged in criminal conduct.

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