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Reflections on the Berkeley-Novartis report

(Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Andrew Paul Gutierrez and Miguel A. Altieri commentary in the Aug. 10 Berkeley Daily Planet:
We have read the report of the external review of the collaborative research agreement between Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc. (NADI) and the Regents of the University of California. We were pleased to learn the history of the “bidding approach” suggested for selecting corporate partners for the university. We were also pleased to receive assurance from the reviewers that the UCB agreement (the UCB-N deal) had minimal direct impacts on the university, but not excluding the College of Natural Resources (CNR). This conclusion was reached without asking the question “what would have happen if the UBC-N deal had not been brought to light?” by a courageous CNR Executive Committee (EXCOM) ably chaired by a vulnerable untenured Assistant Professor Ignacio Chapela. EXCOM (one of us was a member, APG) enabled a faculty review despite excessive pressure from the dean’s office to rapidly ratify the agreement. The report also assumes at Berkeley that the rise of biotechnology and the fall of applied agricultural fields such as biological control, plant pathology, soils and others is just part of the natural progress of science; a mere part of the process of modernization. In fact, according to the review, the “deal” appears consistent with the universities adjusting to the emerging norms of university-based economic development” and gives the impression that science at Berkeley is protected from the influence of politics and corporate power.

Although the reviewers identified the divide between faculty engaged in research in conventional agriculture and those who research alternative forms such as agroecology, sustainable agriculture and biological control, the report doesn’t emphasize the clear fact that researchers working on alternative agriculture identify with goals congruent with the public mission of the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) (e.g. protecting farmers, farm workers, the public and safeguarding the environment). This places them at odds with dominant forces in the university harnessed by the influences of big money. This is what happened to Professor Chapela, whose findings on the genetic pollution of maize landraces threatened the biotechnology industry and we believe his tenure at the university.

The intrusion of private capital and its influence on shaping the research agenda and faculty composition is a major factor in the erosion of the “public good” mission of the AES from which CNR faculty receive most of their salary. The imposition of financial interests on the scientific process in CNR have begun to limit specific “public good” research (e.g. closing the Division of Biological Control and the use the full-time equivalent salary of retired faculty involved in applied agricultural research for biotechnology oriented positions), but also it changed the paths of inquiry in favor of private interests rather than in favor of the public. Just in California, we experience hundreds of millions in losses from invasive pest species, yet biocontrol and integrated pest managment positions in the agricultural experiment station are being closed down. Why is Berkeley so eager to develop the Gill Track in Albany into housing and commercial spaces—its only piece of land for agricultural research? Is it doing this without providing faculty; students and the general public involved in urban agriculture an alternative accessible site? Furthermore, not one cent of the $25 million from the UBC-N deal was spent on examining the ecological impacts of transgenic crops, this despite a growing number of scientists advocating the adoption of the precautionary principle on genetically modified organism (GMO) adoption and despite the fact that the general public in California shows increasing mistrust of GMOs as indicated by the recent anti-GMO bills passed in Mendocino and Trinity counties. Similar anti-GMO bills are expected in at least five more counties by November of this year. Clearly, the public (“kept”) university is so over-stretched by expanding into new research areas that corporate interests are willing to fund, that in the process it has forgotten its first mission is to serve the public good. So, when one looks deeply into the legacy of the UCB-N deal, some of the critic’s worst fears did occur at Berkeley despite the reviewer’s assertion to the contrary. Possibly such outcomes would have still occurred had the UBC-N deal never existed.

What is also interesting in the review is that the UCB-N deal did not produce any tangible benefit—overall nothing useful for California society at large came out. No option to negotiate an exclusive license that could have yielded patent rights or income to the Campus is active. So other than money for biotech researchers, post docs and graduate students, the returns on investment from Novartis were disastrous, but then $25 million is small compared to the public’s investment in CNR infrastructure or the university and for NADI the money was likely pocket change. So what did Novartis really expect from such a deal, aside from obtaining an implied Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, by associating itself with UBC?

Although we welcome the recommendation from the review team that UBC should avoid entering into such agreements in the future, we suggest that there is much more at stake than simply revealing and monitoring corporate ties to science at Berkeley. The public mission of the agricultural experiment station at Berkeley needs to be protected, revived and supported on behalf of the public, irrespective of private sector pressures and calculations of value added to profitability made by administrators in times of budget cuts. This is the only way that the principles of creativity, autonomy and diversity that the reviewers perceive as central to the ethical framework of the university can be restored at Berkeley.

Andrew Paul Gutierrez and Miguel A. Altieri are professors of agroecology at UC Berkeley.f

Source: http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/article.cfm?issue=08-10-04&storyID=19409