Heavy Boots at Berkeley


May 27, 2005


Browse in Commons Intellectual Property

What happens when faculty at a major university raise questions about a multimillion dollar research deal between a corporation and the university? And what happens to science when the search for truth becomes a quest for corporate gain? You could ask Ignacio Chapela. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, because the way things are going, there are likely to be a lot more cases like his.

Chapela, as many readers will recall, was a leader in the opposition to a $25 million deal between U-Cal Berkeley and Novartis, the Swiss biotech firm in 1998. (Novartis since has become Syngenta.) When his tenure application came up, his colleagues in the College of Natural Resources supported him by a 32-1 vote. A special tenure committee backed him unanimously.

Then the decision went upstairs, to a ‘budget” committee that would make the final recommendation. Despite the support of his peers and the persistent urging of his dean, this budget committee found Chapela unfit. The university chancellor heeded that advice, and Chapela was out of a job. It came out later that the budget committee included a professor who was part of the Novartis deal.

Chapela sued, and just last week, a new chancellor reversed the decision of his predecessor.

So Chapela has his vindication, in a sense, plus a job and back pay. But the road he had to travel tells us much about the tightening grip of corporations over university research, and the resulting enclosure of the knowledge commons upon which science and democracy both depend.

The Novartis deal was a kind that has become increasingly the norm in academia. As Jennifer Washburn lays out in her new book University Inc., American universities have fallen into a patent frenzy. Their driving concern now is not public benefit but rather patent gain. At Berkeley, Novartis basically bought a part of a prestigious university. It got first patent rights to discoveries at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology; plus, researchers there had to sign confidentiality agreements in order to gain access to the company’s genomic data. This access was the justification for the deal in the first place. Yet the data was walled off from the public domain where it might generate more research and invention. In effect, the faculty was walled off as well.

What if these researchers uncovered threats to the public health or safety? Under the terms of the agreement, they still had to keep their mouths shut. The purpose of the university had been turned upside down. Professors are supposed to work for the advancement of knowledge; these were working for the advancement of Novartis, at the expense of knowledge. The inclination of the faculty to find fault with this arrangement, was muted by the research grants involved. A committee of five persons allocated the money under the contract. Two were from Novartis. Three were from the faculty, who proceeded to reward hundreds of thousands in research funds to themselves.

Still, Chapela and others did raise questions, and these were not greeted warmly Chapela further disingratiated himself by raising questions about the underlying enterprise of genetic engineering. With a student by the name of David Quist, he studied corn grown in a remote region of Mexico. Mexico is the world’s treasure trove of genetic diversity in corn; and for this reason the country has banned genetically engineered seeds. Chapela and Quist found that despite this, modified genes had found their way into the native varieties in the Mexican heartland.

The research was reviewed by peers and then published in the journal Nature. Then all hell broke lose. Criticism poured into the journal, much of it organized by the biotech industry. Two separate bodies checked the findings: a research institute in Mexico, and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which was established under NAFTA. Both said that Chalpela and Quist were right. In some areas more than a third of the corn showed evidence of infection by the engineered gene sequence.

There could be dispute over the implications, but not that it had happened. Nevertheless, under pressure, Nature published an editor’s note to the effect that the research didn’t support the author’s conclusions. This was the first time in its history the journal had taken such a step. Every critical letter that Nature published came from someone with ties to the Berkeley-Novartis agreement.

Berkeley of course denied that the tenure decision had anything to do with Chapela’s opposition to the Novartis contract. But an independent investigation by researchers at the University of Michigan found that there was “little doubt” that such a connection did exist. In reversing the decision, Berkeley’s new chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, may have thought he was getting out of hot water. But Chapela hasn’t decided whether he will drop his suit “This was not just about my tenure,” he said. “There is still validity to the issues that the suit raises.”

Whether he drops the suit or not, those issues are not going to go away. Throughout the country, universities are pursuing the same path Berkeley did. How many more people of conscience are getting ground up in the machinery that almost disposed of him? Or worse, how many have seen the plight of him and others and decided they’d better hew the party line?

Nobody can say for sure. But Washburn’s evidence — and it is ample — suggest that the number is considerable and growing.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that a kind of Golden Curtain is descending upon the American university. It is bright with lucre but repressive still. Academics are working at the sufferance of new corporate masters. If their ideas are not acceptable they will not advance, or have jobs at all. Those whose ideas do not yield a monetary return find themselves increasingly expendable.

The response of many of the academics involved have not exactly been profiles in courage. The rationalizations run like this. Corporations want cures just like the rest of us do. The pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of knowledge; what difference does it make if corporations pay? If they make money, well that’s how the system works. Do you want commisars to set the research agenda instead? “It was an excellent thing for science on this campus,” a former chairman of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology told the Cal Alumni Magazine. “The [Novartis] funds gave a large number of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars an opportunity for training in their fields.”

Yuh but. But what happens when results come in that is not to the corporation’s liking? What if the company’s drugs, say, turn out to be ineffective or even dangerous? Washburn cites cases in which university researchers had to keep quiet, and Americans spent millions on bogus cures as a result. Who is going to raise questions about corporate drugs and products generally, if all the research money comes from the corporations themselves, and if they control the results?

Perhaps most important, what about the paths not taken. Corporate money seeks solutions that corporations can patent, and and that will yield a lot of money. There is a built-in bias against that which is simple, common-sensical, and inexpensive. In medicine, that leaves out the whole vast realm of prevention, and non-commoditized cure. No one has a patent on walking, for example; so research on obesity naturally will go toward biochemical “interventions” rather than such things as cities and housing developments designed to encourage walking and biking. The corporate world doesn’t want to yank kids away from hyperkinetic video games and TV, so attention problems will be dealt with as biochemical deficiencies rather than commercial cultural excesses.

This is not hypothetical. At Berkeley, as the university has let itself be seduced by patent riches, important areas of research have gone begging. There used to be a Division of Biological Control and a Department of Plant Pathology, which dealt with natural ways of controlling pests. Now neither exists, and half of the faculty positions in entomology are gone as well.

Washburn quotes a Bekeley entomologist by the name of Andy Gutierrez on the point. “You can’t patent the natural organisms and ecological understanding used in in biological control,” he said. “However, if you look at public benefit, that division provided billions of dollars annually to the state of California and to the world.” In one project, Gutierrez and his former colleagues helped stop a pest that was wiping out the cassava crop in West Africa, where it is a staple for 200 million people — more than two-thirds the population of the US.

But what good is that if a corporation isn’t making money? At least now we know what the President’s “Ownership Society” means in practice: if a corporation doesn’t own it you might as well forget it. “Molecular biology and genetic engineering have clearly risen as the preferred approach to solving our problems,” said Donald Dahlsten, former associate dean of the College of Natural Resources, “and that’s where the resources are going. “

Consider the pattern. Start with the desire to patent life, in the form of the gene pool. That leads to corporate ownership of the university and the knowledge it produces. That leads in turn to the suppresion of academics who have contrary views. That sound you hear is the clomp of heavy boots, marching in the name of “freedom” toward a university near you.