Metro Desk: the University

Even university leaders who supported the Novartis deal are beginning to express some doubts

Will It Sell?

In 1998, the department of Plant and Microbial Biology in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources signed a controversial five-year deal with the Swiss biotechnology giant Novartis, a producer of, among other things, genetically modified foods. At the time, a number of professors and students protested the arrangement, and won a small compromise when the university promised to study the effects of the partnership. Now, two years after the deal took place, it looks like that compromise study will do little to examine the most controversial aspects of Novartis’ role–if it does anything at all.

Novartis, whose agrochemical and seed department is now known as Syngenta, granted the college $25 million in exchange for the right to license patents on about one-third of the intellectual property developed by the department, specifically including research funded by such public entities as the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Syngenta reserved the right to temporarily delay publication, required participating professors to sign confidentiality agreements, and maintained significant sway in the decision-making process. A five-person research panel that distributes funds for research projects contains two representatives from Syngenta, and three Syngenta employees are on the six-person advisory committee charged with overseeing the agreement. In return, the department gained access to Syngenta funding, databases, and resources.

The university touted the deal as an experiment that would propel the growing partnership between public universities and private industry, helping to turn the university’s public research into useful goods for private consumption. But others worried that the agreement spelled the end of nonpartisan research and nonprofitable fields of study. Since the arrangement was billed as an experiment, its effects on the functioning of the campus were to be studied under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Higher Education. But so far, little has been done to that effect. A committee has been formed to hire and oversee an independent review agency. The university has secured $150,000 for that review, and is attempting to get another matching $150,000 in outside funding, though so far funds have not been forthcoming. After two years, many of the agreement’s most controversial aspects still remain unresolved.

Hindsight Is 20-20
University-industry partnerships, of course, are nothing new. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 granted public universities the right to patent federally funded research in order to turn public research into products useful to the population at large; since that time a new ethic has developed in which the promotion of the public good appears synonymous with the commercialization of research. Corporate-sponsored research has grown by leaps and bounds, leaving many in the academic community uneasy about the accuracy of studies paid for by the very companies that stand to profit from the results. A 1996 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for instance, found that when testing new drugs, 98 percent of studies paid for by drug companies reported favorable results, while only 79 percent of nonindustry-sponsored studies were favorable.

And at Berkeley, even university leaders who supported the Novartis deal are beginning to express some doubts. In a speech in Erfurt, Germany last year, Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Berdahl highlighted the dangers of the growing “university-industrial complex.” Although he backed his institution’s partnership with Novartis, Berdahl argued that when the common goal of public service fades and income disparities between business and humanities professors grow, the university risks losing its cohesion. The end result may be the devaluation of the humanities and social sciences–the very disciplines designed to guide society as it grapples with lucrative new technologies. Plus, Berdahl noted, the increased role of the private sector in public research damages the perception of the university as the center of independent thought and objective study. “The issue is not that Novartis may direct the research exclusively to topics that may yield profits for the company,” he said. “It is, rather, that the perception of the objectivity of our faculty may be compromised and with it the confidence that their research is dedicated to the public good.”

Berdahl continued by pointing out that biotechnology research such as that conducted by Novartis has been directed at areas profitable to private companies, rather than to areas that benefit all of humanity: “The early uses of genetic modification have not been to create, for example, vitamin-rich strains of rice that would benefit the health of much of the world’s population, because that is not where the profits are to be had. Instead, the earliest applications of genetic modification has been to produce crops that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides because the companies providing the herbicides and pesticides are also investing in the development of crop strains that can tolerate their herbicides and pesticides.”

But the disadvantages of the private-public partnership are not so clear for some College of Natural Resources researchers, who no longer have to contend with the limits of public funding, thanks to the deal. At the time of the agreement, the faculty of the College of Natural Resources was sharply divided. While most faculty members supported biotechnology research, many felt the agreement would damage the free exchange of ideas within the college as well as academic freedom, shared governance, and the college’s public image. The opinions expressed in a faculty survey at the time ranged from unequivocal support to adamant opposition; today, this division among faculty and students continues.

A number of the original opponents of the deal remain resolute; many other graduate students and faculty say they have reservations as to the ethics of the agreement–but they also express gratitude for the resources provided by Syngenta. A survey of 35 Plant and Microbial Biology graduate students conducted by the Center for Studies in Higher Education last year found that most students were happy with the extra funding and resources but expressed concern over the intangible aspects of the agreement–such as the appropriateness of accepting industry money for research. “We haven’t seen any effect except as a different funding source,” says graduate student Mike Axtell. “We have access to equipment we normally wouldn’t get, and the department can afford to hire more graduate students. The culture of Molecular and Cell Biology has been changing over the last twenty years to be more product-oriented, so the way this agreement has played out is not doing anything to change that.”

But critics fear that this product-oriented approach may come at the expense of other areas of research that are not so obviously profitable. According to Professor Miguel Altieri, “the university is moving in the direction of Molecular Biology at the expense of other fields such as pest controls, organic farming, and sustainable agriculture. There is a dialectic where the production of new knowledge occurs at the expense of other knowledge. There is no common ground, and in my opinion, no room for common ground. Sustainable agriculture, environmentally sound agriculture, is at odds with the corporate approach.

Left Hanging
Thus far, no faculty research proposals have been declined, and by all accounts Syngenta publishes data quickly. Still, many provisions contained within the original agreement have not yet taken effect, leaving some critics worried that the upcoming review will ignore the more contentious issues. Designated “proprietary information” can technically be withheld for up to five years, though the need for such action has not arisen. The proposed Syngenta building on campus has not been built, nor have Syngenta employees arrived on campus to teach and work with faculty and students as initially planned. Overall, the relationship between the university and Syngenta is far less intimate than originally envisioned, and some of the more radical aspects of the agreement have been tempered by faculty and student criticism.

But these proposals are still in the signed agreement and have not been discarded. Similarly, the agreement provides an open-ended opportunity for California commodity groups–large agricultural organizations that represent and promote specific crops–to participate in specific research projects in yet-to-be-determined ways. These commodity groups are some of the largest customers for the genetically modified foods produced by Syngenta.

Plus, Syngenta amended the agreement last year, decreasing its funding for the university to about $24 million. The over $1 million thereby withdrawn was redirected to pay for research at the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany –operated by the Agricultural Research Service, the US Department of Agriculture’s in-house research component. Expression Center scientists, who serve as adjunct faculty at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, study genetically engineered crops and seek to “transform raw agricultural material into commercially viable products,” according to the center’s Web site. Again, this is nothing new for the Agricultural Research Service, which partners with private industry regularly in order to get products into the market; the center itself has over one thousand similar agreements with other biotechnology companies. In fact, the recently amended Federal Technology Transfer Act requires federal labs to transfer the results of their research to private industry through such agreements. Says the center’s Martha Steinbock, “If you keep the technology locked up in a lab, it will never do anyone any good.”

But then again, if the research just tells us what the big companies want to hear, how much good will that do us?

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