February 23, 2005: Features
A novel partnership: Princeton, BP, and Ford
For most of his career, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Pacala was what he calls a “basic scientist.” He supported his research with federal grants, delving into areas of ecology that intrigued him, such as climate change — areas that industry tended to ignore. The idea of partnering with corporate executives rarely crossed his mind.
But in 2000, when Princeton competed against Stanford and MIT for a British Petroleum grant to study the global carbon problem, which has been linked to climate changes, Pacala began to reconsider. With co-author Robert Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Pacala wrote an application that treated the excess of atmospheric carbon “as an environmental problem rather than an engineering problem.” He also highlighted Princeton’s strengths: a group of top carbon and climate scientists located in close proximity to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton’s Forrestal campus, one of the world’s premier climate-modeling centers.
BP chose Princeton’s proposal, providing a $15 million, 10-year commitment, the largest corporate grant in University history. With an additional $5 million from Ford Motor Co., the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) was born in October 2000.
Today, Pacala and Socolow are CMI’s co-directors, and the program is nearing its midway point. CMI research covers a range of topics, from examining policy issues surrounding carbon mitigation to exploring ways to capture and sequester greenhouse gas emissions produced by burning fossil fuels. The professors have found their sponsors to be an eager audience. “We both want to understand the problem,” Pacala says.
But Princeton scientists still set the agenda, deciding what to study and how to approach the research. “We knew that there was an inevitable conflict between short-term and long-term gain,” Pacala says. “The reason that a forward-looking corporation like BP goes into something like this is that they know they need an external arrangement to fight the inevitable myopia that develops with the short-term focus on profit.”
So far, the relationship has not encountered any serious friction, Pacala says. The only restriction is that BP and Ford’s proprietary information may not be released. CMI researchers have published nearly 200 papers since the project began, and the scientific community has paid attention even to the policy-oriented research: For example, Pacala and Socolow wrote a paper about implementing existing technologies to stabilize carbon that ran in the Aug. 13, 2004, issue of Science.
From the beginning of his work with CMI, Pacala says, he was prepared to walk away if the sponsors challenged Princeton’s academic freedom. “People talk about scientists being secretive,” he says, “but the fact of it is you want everybody following you.”