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Balancing funding, ethics: UC Berkeley researching with tech leviathans

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Special to the Daily Californian

NOVEMBER 09, 2023

Located just north of Silicon Valley, UC Berkeley has always been an academic powerhouse renowned for its cutting-edge technological research and innovation. Campus has produced giants such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Google Nest Chief Technology Officer Yoky Matsuoka and ChatGPT architect John Schulman. 

Additionally, UC Berkeley has consistently beneficial relationships with various tech giants such as Google. In August 2023, UC Berkeley announced that it received a $2.2 million grant as part of Google’s cybersecurity investment program. This funding was built off of the campus cybersecurity clinic called Citizen Clinic under the UC Berkeley School of Information. It has various aims, including “conducting research across the network of clinics to better serve the public interest.”

The technological leviathan of Amazon also has a close relationship with UC Berkeley and its Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Lab, or BAIR Lab. This years-old arrangement allows Amazon to collaborate with UC Berkeley students on research projects that cover machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer science and econometrics. 

In 2019, Meta — then Facebook — also established a partnership with BAIR Lab, creating the BAIR Open Research Commons to advance AI research between corporate leaders and UC Berkeley’s students and faculty. This partnership was aided by electrical engineering and computer sciences professor Jitendra Malik, who is both a research director of Facebook AI and a founding director of BAIR Lab. Like Amazon, Meta also engages in joint research projects with campus involving the most pressing issues of the computer science field. 

Overall, these research partnerships and joint projects create a tight-knit relationship between private entities and this public university. In essence, this may demonstrate an interlocking iron triangle of Big Tech, college students and campus itself. 

Stanford and UC Berkeley lead among schools with the most alumni at these technology powerhouses. Specifically, UC Berkeley shines as a top feeder school to Google, with a reported alumni count of over 16,000. 

Although these ties may be beneficial for UC Berkeley’s undergraduate population in terms of encouraging both ingenuity and research initiatives, they also raise questions about corporate influence on UC Berkeley’s research. 

Campus faculty receive funding from Big Tech companies in the form of grants from winning awards, such as the Google Research Scholar award. This year, campus assistant engineering professor Rajan Udwani was awarded for his proposal on algorithms and optimization. This award gives him and his lab access to unrestricted funding and an opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated liaison from Google. Other Big Tech companies give similar grants to researchers, such as the NVIDIA Academic Hardware Grant, to facilitate discussion and research in niche technological fields. 

However, this research funding seems to be an effort to advance corporate interests. 

A study authored by two researchers from the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School showcased possible corporate influence on academic research in AI. This came in the form of influencing the research questions of specific projects by diverting or lending attention to certain topics.

The study found that corporate public relations campaigns may inform Big Tech’s scientists. The study cites several leaked internal documents from Google that instruct its scientists to “strike a positive tone” in their research. The study authors believe academic researchers undergo similar filtration processes when receiving grants.

To determine this, the study analyzed how many faculty and researchers from UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford and the University of Toronto received technology company grants, funding and awards. This was conducted to better understand the financial relationship between individual researchers at universities and technology companies. The study found that 84% of computer science faculty at these colleges are affiliated with Big Tech through receiving funding or being employed at these companies. 

The study concluded that while these financial relationships do not exactly imply a direct conscious impact by Big Tech companies, such constant exposure may lead to an unconscious adoption of these companies’ values. 

This is unfortunately compounded by the repeated observation by some people that corporate interests in maximizing profit supersede the quality of research. UC Berkeley alumna Meredith Whittaker, who is the president of the Signal Foundation and worked at Google for 13 years, believes that corporate messaging that encourages scholars to act independently comes secondary to corporations protecting their bottom line. 

Obviously, a university’s funding is its lifeblood, and receiving funding from technology companies boosts its profile in the face of enrollment and various academic fields. Given this, it is understandable and expected that universities receive these grants. However, UC  Berkeley should also simultaneously establish guardrails to preserve the autonomy and integrity of academic research.

UC Berkeley’s industry collaboration in technology research is a double-edged sword. There are tremendous benefits that have lasting ripple effects from these partnerships, but it also speaks to the tenuous relationship between private interests and public universities. 

When balancing financial interests and obligations to its academic researchers, UC Berkeley should not willingly accept research grants from technology companies if the attached strings fiddle with the research like Pinnochio.

Edwin Tieu is an undergraduate studying computer engineering and computer science at USC and has worked as a haptics engineer at the HaRVI Laboratory at USC. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected]

NOVEMBER 09, 2023