Letter to UC Berkeley’s “Daily Californian”

Here’s a letter I sent off to the Daily Californian:

On the Daily Californian’s opinion page on July 26, 2010 (Berkeley-BP Deal Only Looks Worse Post-Spill), Miguel Altieri writes, “This Berkeley-BP deal was signed without wide consultation with the faculty and despite warnings from a great number of faculty…”

At the nub of it, his fundamental complaint appears to be the administration’s exclusion of staff from the decision process. Of course he raises a number of other distracting arguments such as excess nitrogen in the gulf caused by fertilizing crops, BP’s poor safety and environmental record, the downside of biofuels, and the fact that the administration accepted lucre from an energy company for research to “find new, more sustainable energy technologies.”

Whether faculty input provides more politically correct donors is arguable and of no concern to me. Rather, my interest is in the subtext of the op-ed: that funding sources affect the research process. Funders can and do try to inflict their biases into studies. Whether the funder is BP or an environmental group, there is always a possibility that the funder will try to influence the findings. I personally know a forester contracted by the Sierra Club to do research regarding the (then) proposed Sequoia National Monument. When preliminary findings did not support the Sierra Club’s preferred results, the project was discontinued. I know another researcher contracted by the National Audubon Society; when his preliminary findings did not support their bias, they confiscated his camera and halted the study.

The faculty, student body, and the university’s administration recognize that the state’s funding of the university’s research needs will only continue to decrease, at least in the near term. Focusing on flaws in funding sources does not solve that problem. Rather, focusing on firewalling research from biases in design, implementation, and results, is a discussion worth having.

Norm Benson
Lower Lake, CA

UPDATE (3 August 2010):

I have been contacted by the Daily Californian. They will “strongly consider publishing” my response. Stay tuned…


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Wood Energy?

Interesting 60-Second Science about how the “Old Energy Source Wood Be New Alternative.” The money quote:

“If chopping down forests for fuel doesn’t sound like the greenest solution to our energy needs, the scientists note that we’d have to figure out how to manage our woodsheds sustainably, to avoid slashing and burning our way to a toasty home and a bare Earth. But trees are renewable. They’re cheaper than fossil fuels. And they provide more shade than offshore windmills.”


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