Report: Five-year deal with Novartis hurt UC Berkeley

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Sunday, Aug. 1, 2004

A $25 million, five-year research deal between plant biologists at UC Berkeley and the biotechnology company Novartis was a costly experiment that should not be repeated, outside reviewers conclude in a report being released today.

The reviewers, from Michigan State University's Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards, found that damage done to the University of California's premier research campus, from campus infighting to a tarnished reputation, simply wasn't worth the money.

The findings could reverberate far beyond Berkeley. Campuses around the country, including UC Davis, considered the Novartis agreement a possible model for their own arrangements with industry.

"When one looks at the negative publicity that occurred, the enormous amount of time that was spent after the fact trying to justify the agreement, as well as the serious problems it poses for the perceived objectivity of the scientists, this is probably not a good idea to do," said Lawrence Busch, who led the 10-member review team.

The contract, which expired in November, gave a select group of Berkeley biologists $25 million for research along with access to trade secrets, principally in genetics. In return, Novartis got first dibs on potentially lucrative discoveries.

The deal provoked vigorous and often angry debate on campus and inspired numerous articles in the popular press, including one in Atlantic Monthly magazine titled "The Kept University."

In the end, the collaboration didn't turn out as anyone expected. The company didn't try to strong-arm the scientists to pursue only commercially valuable research, as some had predicted.

And participants - 23 faculty members in the department of plant and microbial biology, plus their research staffs and students - did not make any dramatic discoveries. In fact, the company did not license a single invention produced during the five-year period.

Yet to this day, talking about the contract elicits strong emotions on campus. Busch, a social scientist by training, said that's because the controversy is a symptom of a bigger issue for universities nationwide: confusion and disagreement over their mission and role.

Is the primary purpose of a university to create knowledge? To stimulate economic growth? Train high-tech specialists needed in a modern economy? Educate the masses? Be of service to its customers?

"The vision of the university as an engine of growth is now the dominant view," the reviewers wrote in the conclusion to the 188-page report. "Lamentably, this has occurred with little or no real debate among faculty, students or external constituencies."

The issue of conflicts of interest among public university researchers working with the biotechnology industry was the subject of a Bee article in "Seeds of Doubt," a five-part series about genetically engineered food published in June.

At UC Davis, the administration and some faculty have high interest in strengthening ties with the commercial world.

"Take a high-tech university like UC Davis, the majority of our students will wind up working in industry," said Barry Klein, vice chancellor for research. "We don't want to view industry as the enemy - that's where our students are going. We want to build a bridge to them."

After reading the executive summary of the UC Berkeley-Novartis review, Klein said the report offers food for thought. But he said the UC Davis administration has been careful to air its goals on attracting industry and to invite faculty feedback, and, he said, that feedback usually is positive.

"To the extent that the Busch report is right ... and the failing was largely one of perceptions and what have you," Klein said, "we're doing the right thing by at least talking about these issues."

At Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Berdahl was on vacation and not available to discuss the review. In his absence, Vice Chancellor Paul Gray provided brief written answers to questions submitted by e-mail.

While he did not say so explicitly, Gray appeared to disagree with the reviewers' fundamental conclusion that the Novartis contract - because it involved virtually an entire department - was a mistake.

"Among the ways the report is helpful is that it provides data to show that the (plant and microbial biology) department is healthier today than it was before the agreement was put into place," Gray wrote.

That's because, he said, the department was able to leverage the money it received from the company into grants from other outside sources, including the federal government, boosting its overall research funding.

Damon Lisch got a job at UC Berkeley because of the Novartis money, and has kept that job thanks to subsequent government grants.

"It changed my life," said Lisch, a researcher in the laboratory of Michael Freeling, who was one of the top beneficiaries of the agreement, receiving $950,000 over five years.

"It was very hard for me to rationalize not accepting the money when there were so few strings," Lisch said. "They never told us what to do."

However, Lisch still lives with the larger controversy over agricultural biotechnology, which he believes has been damaged by negative public perception.

"I told a little kid the other day that I'm a corn geneticist, and she said, 'Ewwww!' " Lisch said, chuckling.

David Quist, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in ecology who helped start a student group that opposed the Novartis contract, said he was pleasantly surprised by the "brave" assessment of the review team.

"I didn't really anticipate that they were going to hit on a lot of the biggies," Quist said. "To me, the report brought to the surface a lot of the invasive, yet unacknowledged, concerns about financial conflicts of interest and also the philosophical or world view conflict of interest.

"For genetic engineers, making the genetically engineered product often is the endpoint of their research," he said. "Whereas for me as an ecologist, it's the beginning point. Those are very different points of view and world views."

The $225,000 review was paid for by the UC Berkeley administration.

The report will be posted online at www.msu.edu/user/ifas/ beginning Monday, Busch said.


About the Writer
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The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.