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Critical Reaction To Research Initiative

Dow's UC Berkeley program raises faculty hackles

by Marc S. Reisch
November 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 45

Harvard University School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.
Credit: Harvard University
Credit: Harvard University

DOW CHEMICAL AND BASF, the world's two largest chemical companies, have separately agreed to fund groundbreaking academic research initiatives at two of the most prestigious U.S. universities. One of the partnerships, Dow's sustainability program at the University of California, Berkeley, is raising serious concerns among academics. The other, between BASF and Harvard University, is not as controversial and will support research leading to new products.

The Dow Chemical Foundation will make a gift of $10 million over the next five years to launch the Sustainable Products & Solutions Program at UC Berkeley. To be based at the Center for Responsible Business within UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, the interdisciplinary program will operate in partnership with the school's College of Chemistry, but it will also draw on faculty from across the campus. The gift will fund basic chemical research, environmental policy research, and the interface between the two disciplines.

The gift has attracted some faculty criticism, however. Michael P. Wilson, a research scientist in the university's School of Public Health, is concerned that Dow could influence the types of research questions asked. He tells C&EN such university-industry partnerships can help address technical challenges, such as those in green chemistry, but they also raise questions about how researchers will maintain independence and a commitment to the public interest.

Wilson, who serves on the California Environmental Protection Agency's Green Chemistry Science Advisory Panel says: "Those of us working in the technical and policy aspects of green chemistry at UC Berkeley are unlikely to become involved in this program until the lines of authority are delineated."

Tony Kingsbury, a Dow executive on temporary assignment who recently joined the Center for Responsible Business in anticipation of the Dow gift, says his company is providing seed money only to launch the program. The gift, he says, comes with no strings attached. Dow will play no role in deciding which projects the center will fund; university faculty will make those decisions. Kingsbury, however, will have an observer role on the program steering panel. All research results will be the property of the university.

Kingsbury says he will help recruit companies in sectors such as retail, consumer products, mining, and semiconductors to contribute to the program. He says Dow is counting on the program to help train a new generation of industry leaders who will consider environmental sustainability in the development of new products and processes.

In contrast, BASF's $20 million agreement with Harvard will fund cooperative research intended to yield new products and hasn't prompted much criticism.

The agreement sets up the BASF Advanced Research Initiative for five years. The $20 million program will initially support 10 postdoctoral students and other Harvard researchers, primarily in the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.

The partners say the agreement sets up a novel model for university-industry collaborations. They call it a "fully collaborative, integrated partnership" among Harvard and BASF researchers intended to foster a "vibrant and dynamic" intellectual exchange.

Venkatesh Narayanamurti, dean of Harvard's engineering school, says the research initiative will allow the school "to bolster our existing excellence in basic and applied research and develop new ways to bring research out of the lab."

Project areas could include applied physics, applied mathematics, chemical biology, systems biology, bioengineering, and materials science. One target for investigation is improved delivery of active ingredient molecules in polymer systems for applications in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, cosmetics, food, and feed. Another project would seek a better understanding of biofilm formation that would help researchers find new ways of inhibiting microbial growth.

Under the agreement, BASF will have the opportunity to further develop discoveries and innovations. But Harvard faculty investigators will reserve the right to distribute and publish any discoveries from the initiative.


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