You are here: Part Three

Biotech industry funds bumper crop of UC Davis research

By Tom Knudson and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
Published Tuesday, June 8, 2004 -- Third of five parts

Greenhouses glow in the evening at UC Davis ... Greenhouses glow in the evening at UC Davis, where crops and genes have long been a passion. Founded as a land-grant agricultural college, the school is embracing biotechnology. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

Last August, a promising new report about genetically modified corn flickered across a Web site sponsored by the corn's corporate creator, the biotechnology giant Monsanto Co.

Citing new research by the University of California, Davis, the report said corn altered to produce its own pesticide was a biotechnology bonanza - one that could make farmers across the country wealthier and reduce the use of toxic insecticides.

But there was one fact the “Biotech Knowledge Center” Web site failed to mention: Monsanto paid for the UC Davis research.

Following a pattern set by farm chemical companies in the 1960s, the biotechnology industry is mining public agricultural colleges such as UC Davis for scientific research, confidential business advice and academic support for its technology.

You name it, and biotechnology companies help pay for it at UC Davis: laboratory studies, scholarships, post.doctoral students' salaries, professors' travel expenses, even the campus utility bill. Some professors earn extra money, up to $2,000 a month, consulting for such companies on the side.

The school's attraction to biotechnology is driven by its desire to transform itself from a traditional agricultural college into a bustling center for the exploration - and manipulation - of plant genes. That desire is more than talk. New buildings and research centers are sprouting: the Seed Biotechnology Center, the Genome Center and a planned new life science research park along Interstate 80. A bumper crop of biotechnology research is under way.

Biotechnology industry dollars are helping spark the transformation.

Top corporate donors

Reaching out to industry “is good for regional economic development. It's good for the state. It's good for our students,” said Barry Klein, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis.

The university's top official - Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef - supports the concept but said caution must be applied. “We have to be very vigilant and very wary,” he said. “Universities are flirting with the gray zone with regard to what kind of research there is to be done - and whether or not our noses are being turned by the money.”

A fundamental force drawing colleges and companies together is declining state and federal revenue for agricultural research. “Most faculty members don't necessarily want to please large companies,” Vanderhoef said. “What they do want is their research funded.”

But some wonder whether UC Davis could be losing sight of its mission to serve the broad needs of agriculture and society as it works with industry to serve up a smorgasbord of biotech foods - from slow-ripening tomatoes to genetically engineered cheese.

“The public is having a hard time figuring out where the corporate door ends and where the university door begins,” said Bill Liebhardt, former director of the UC system's sustainable farming program, which promotes nonindustrial farming methods.

Small farmers - the very people agricultural colleges like UC Davis were established to help - feel neglected. “The university is being led by industry,” said Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Yolo County.

View the photo gallery Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm in Yolo County, gathers organic flowers to make an herbicide-free bouquet. Renée C. Byer

Digging for details

UC Davis' courtship with companies attracts little outside attention. Documents detailing the relationship are scattered widely across campus and sometimes missing entirely. Track down the files, talk to those involved and you'll find:

A “who's who” of international biotechnology companies fund work at UC Davis. They include Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Bayer. Some grants pay for specific research, but many arrive with no official strings attached. Whatever the form, the companies get something in return - access to the university's talent pool and, often, first crack at its scientific breakthroughs.

A special UC program - Discovery Grants - distributes state money to California biotechnology firms, hoping to jump-start research. Some of that taxpayer money also has been awarded to the world's largest biotechnology corporations. On occasion, the taxpayer-funded program has been undermined when companies start research, then don't pay their bills.

More than 20 UC Davis professors have earned outside income providing advice to biotechnology companies, a practice known as consulting. In one instance, two UC Davis professors purchased shares of stock in a biotech startup company that funded their research. Often, those financial ties are not disclosed in academic articles and public forums.

Industry funding is changing the culture of the public university. Professors who once shared discoveries freely now guard them like industry trade secrets - which they sometimes are. “You can't talk as openly,” said James Murray, a UC Davis animal science professor.

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The $95 million Genome Center ... The $95 million Genome Center, due to open later this year at UC Davis, is just one of many additions that are transforming the agricultural college into a center at the cutting edge of biology. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

Campus goes from farm to future

If the wind is right, you can catch a whiff of the UC Davis dairy herd from the gates of the gleaming $95 million Genome Center rising on the western edge of campus.

The six-story tower represents the university's future; the cows - already displaced as the campus mascot by the sleeker mustang - represent its past as the university farm.

Genomic studies are emerging as one of the campus's most prominent intellectual features. UC Davis officials are determined to be at the world's leading edge as they fill the new Genome Center with more than a dozen new professors and their lab teams.

“This cannot afford to fail,” said Richard Michelmore, the veteran genetics professor who will direct the center. Denmark-based Novozymes, the world's largest manufacturer of industrial enzymes, recently donated $500,000 to endow his position.

Already, Davis boasts more than 70 genomics researchers. The center is an attempt to further explore what some call the “new biology” - studies such as proteomics (studying proteins), bioinformatics (managing biological data) and metabolomics (tracking the biochemical effects of active genes).

The goal is to take an integrated approach to big questions, such as how microorganisms infect plants and animals. Work at the center will be so fundamental that much of it isn't expected to have immediate commercial appeal.

As finishing touches are put on the building for this summer's opening, not everyone applauds its purpose. At the agricultural college, a core of scientists fear the investment signals a further decline in plant researchers who actually get their hands dirty.

“The study of biology has really become unbalanced,” said Arnold Bloom, a vegetable crops professor. “DNA is only part of the story.”

- Mike Lee

 


UC Davis is one of more than 70 land-grant agricultural colleges first established by Congress in the 1860s to serve the public and small farmers. With names such as Iowa State, Purdue, Cornell, Texas A&M and Virginia Polytechnic, they form the educational foundation of the world's richest and most productive farm system.

Three decades ago, land-grant colleges came under sharp criticism from farm workers and environmentalists for their close ties to agribusiness. Among projects drawing fire was a mechanical tomato harvester developed at UC Davis that put farm workers out of a job.

“Although the land-grant college complex was created to be the people's university ... the system has, in fact, become the sidekick and frequent servant of agriculture's industrialized elite,” wrote Jim Hightower, a former Texas agriculture commissioner, in “Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times,” a 1972 book about the controversy.

Today, some see history repeating itself as land-grant colleges embrace biotechnology. “We are following the technology and allowing it to set our direction,” said Chuck Hassebrook, a member of the University of Nebraska's Board of Regents.

Some universities are choosing alternate paths. Despite budget cuts, Iowa State University - a major target of criticism in the 1970s - recently launched a special program to examine biotechnology's social, economic and environmental impacts. In New York, Cornell University has a reputation for examining all sides of the biotechnology boom.

But such scrutiny has not taken root at UC Davis.

“On this campus you have a very strong lobby for biotechnology,” said Paul Gepts, former chairman of the agronomy department. “The university should be a meeting place of ideas. Let's examine (biotechnology) and let the chips fall where they may.”

Scavenger hunt

For professors, finding money for research is more than a challenge. It is a scavenger hunt. They look everywhere - foundations, government, farm groups, nonprofit organizations. Some even dip into their own bank accounts to keep graduate students working.

In July 2002, UC Davis farm economics professor Julian Alston found a patron in the private sector: Monsanto, one of the world's five largest crop biotechnology firms.

The official announcement came in the form of a letter. “Dear Dr. Alston,” it read. “Please find enclosed a check for $40,000 that represents an unrestricted gift in support of your research program.”

As the company had prearranged with Alston, the money would fund a survey of farmers' attitudes about a new variety of biotech corn Monsanto was bringing to market. Alston would hire a polling firm, analyze the results and prepare a report. The polling firm selected - Doane Marketing Research Inc. - is based three miles from Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters.

Bryan Hurley, a Monsanto spokesman, said the company merely wanted to learn more about what farmers think about its new biotech product. Now, he said, “there's solid, objective research available.”

When Alston's report came out a year later in a biotech online journal, its findings were favorable to Monsanto. The new variety - Yieldguard Rootworm - could put an additional $231 million in farmers' pockets, Alston reported, and could save them $58 million through lower pesticide costs.

Related Documents

Documents

Click image to see Monsanto's letter to Julian Alston and other documents.

Critics of biotechnology's influence are not surprised by such company-friendly findings.

“When industry funds studies, they tend to echo what industry wants to hear,” said Merrill Goozner at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit industry watchdog group.

Alston said the Monsanto money did not influence his analysis. “I am going to report my findings whatever they are, regardless of the source of funds,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged it might look funny from the outside. “We'd be a lot better off if we could just find funding ... that doesn't imply any taint,” Alston said.

In his report in the online journal AgBioForum, Alston and three co-authors thanked Monsanto for data and advice - but didn't mention the company funding. They did acknowledge financial support from a National Science Foundation program, which, it turns out, also is partly funded by Monsanto.

Like Alston, other professors are torn about company coziness.

“On the one hand, I feel biotech companies - how can I say this? - are influencing the way we do research,” said Eduardo Blumwald, a UC Davis cell biologist who tapped biotechnology industry money for field experiments after being turned down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But on the other hand, they are the only ones that can help us in promoting the research.”


 

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