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Berkeley-Novartis deal gets thumbs down in peer review

(Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Goldie Blumenstyk, Chronicles of Higher Education, 07/30/04: A team of scholars says universities should avoid unusual and controversial research agreements such as the one the University of California at Berkeley had with the company formerly known as Novartis. The university had invited the team of outside scholars to evaluate its relationship with the company.

The arrangement at Berkeley, in which nearly an entire department of biology participated in a five-year, $25-million corporate-sponsorship agreement, was "outside the mainstream for research contracts with industry," the team of evaluators concludes.

"While an intriguing experiment, there appears little rationale for repeating the approach," they say in their report, which is scheduled to be released this weekend.

The report also suggests that Berkeley's relationship with Novartis created a potential conflict of interest among administrators that affected the tenure review of a faculty member, Ignacio Chapela, who was an outspoken critic of the agreement. He was denied tenure in late 2003. The report does not offer an opinion on whether Mr. Chapela should have received tenure, but it does state that "there is little doubt" that the Berkeley-Novartis relationship was a factor in the tenure decision.

The agreement "played a very clear role and an unsatisfactory role in the tenure process" of Mr. Chapela, said Lawrence Busch, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, who headed the evaluation.

More than 200 academics and others have called for an investigation of the tenure denial for Mr. Chapela, an assistant professor of microbial ecology. He has said that the Academic Senate's Committee on Privilege and Tenure will investigate whether he received due process, and that his term of employment has been extended to December 31, 2004.

A Divided College

The 188-page report is the product of more than two years of work by a team of 10 Michigan State researchers, who were selected to conduct the evaluation. Berkeley's Academic Senate requested it when the Novartis deal was announced, in 1998.

At the time, officials of Berkeley's department of plant and microbial biology and the dean of the College of Natural Resources, where the department is housed, heralded the deal as a pathbreaking venture that would pump up the department's financial base, provide members access to sophisticated equipment, and help it to win additional research support.

But the deal also had its critics, including two within the department, several in other parts of the college and campus, and many in academe as a whole. They said it could compromise faculty members' independence and skew research priorities.

As it turned out, said Mr. Busch, neither the hype nor the condemnation proved justified.

"None of the worst fears came to pass," said Mr. Busch, who is director of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards at Michigan State. But "none of the greatest hopes came to pass," either.

The report notes, for example, that the department did see an overall increase in its research support during the period that its arrangement with Novartis was in place. But at the same time, the report says, another biology department at Berkeley also saw its research support increase. For purposes of comparison the researchers looked at a plant-biology department at Michigan State and noted that its financing, too, rose during the same period.

The deal concluded at the end of 2003. By then Novartis had split off its agribusiness arm and merged it with that of another company to create a new corporation, Syngenta.

No Smoking Gun

While the team found no egregious examples of wrongdoing in regard to the research itself, it did fault Berkeley on several fronts.

"The perception that the agreement was negotiated behind the scenes without following normal procedures," the report says, "signaled an erosion of shared governance to a number of faculty."

The evaluation also raises questions about the broad rights that Berkeley granted to Syngenta to commercialize inventions. Under the agreement, the company had the first rights to negotiate licenses on inventions by faculty members who participated in the agreement, even if the work had been financed with federal funds.

"Such an occurrence," the report says, "strains conventional thinking on the proper stewardship of public funds."

Berkeley officials had maintained that the intellectual-property deal followed principles set out years earlier by the National Institutes of Health, because Syngenta was entitled to choose no more than one-third of all inventions from the department to commercialize.

But the report says that the deal "fell short of at least the spirit of the NIH's guidelines" because Syngenta could see everything and choose what it wanted. "They could cherry-pick," said Michigan State's Mr. Busch.

Berkeley sought patents on 20 of the department's inventions during the period of the sponsorship, 10 of which derived at least in part from Syngenta-supported research. The company expressed interest in six of them, including two that involved ways to improve grains, but never licensed any.

The agreement also became a lightning rod for divisions within the College of Natural Resources, where the biology department became identified as a bastion of support for agricultural-biotechnology research, while other departments in the college were critical of such work.

Relations among faculty members within the college "continue to be a serious problem," the report says. "Such a poor state of collegiality hinders the productive capacity of the college as a whole and the quality of education that it is able to provide."

Bad Impressions

Paul W. Ludden, dean of the college since mid-2002, did not respond to requests for his comments on that assessment.

Berkeley's executive vice chancellor and provost, Paul R. Gray, oversaw the agreement for the administration. He declined to be interviewed by telephone, saying through a spokeswoman that he was too busy.

But in a written response to questions, Mr. Gray noted that the Novartis/Syngenta funds had accounted for only 27 percent of the biology department's overall sponsored-research budget during the period of the agreement, and that participants considered it a success.

"The department is substantially healthier" than it was at the outset of the agreement, he wrote.

He declined to comment on the Chapela matter because it is an "ongoing academic personnel case."

Robert Spear, a professor in the School of Public Health who was a leader of the Berkeley Academic Senate when the deal began, said he was disappointed that the report did not focus more directly on whether the deal had led to a skewing of professors' research priorities.

He also noted, however, that the issue became less of a concern for faculty members when it became clear, in 2002, that Syngenta would not renew the agreement.

Syngenta never gave a reason, but the presumption was that the strong antipathy to biotech crops outside the United States had prompted it to scale back that kind of research.

Mr. Spear said he agreed with a recommendation in the report that Berkeley review its arrangements with industry to ensure that those ties did not compromise researchers' ability to be seen as honest brokers of information and analysis on important issues. The biology department's deal with Novartis/Syngenta "certainly did compromise the department," said Mr. Spear.

Mr. Busch, in a follow-up e-mail exchange, said that recommendation, like others in the report, applies to all public universities as well.

The deal created the impression that the department was "on the dole" and "biased toward the funding source," he said. "Universities as institutions can only be objective observers on the scientific and regulatory scene to the extent that some distance remains between them and industry funding sources."