by Robert Sanders
As Berkeley’s Department of Plant & Microbial Biology (PMB) enters the fifth and last year of its $25 million research agreement with agricultural-biotech giant Novartis, its successor company, Syngenta, has yet to announce whether it will want to continue the contract. The current agreement requires that Syngenta notify the campus at least a year before the contract expires if it intends to renew, but that that date passed uneventfully in November.
A recent phone conversation with Syngenta researchers, however, suggests that even if the company renews its agreement with the campus, PMB is unlikely to come away with as broad or as lucrative an agreement as it did in 1998.
According to Susan Jenkins, who administers the Syngenta grant for the College of Natural Resources, a Jan. 21 phone conversation between Berkeley administrators and Syngenta scientists left her and others with the impression that if the company decided to continue funding, it would probably target specific projects rather than offer money to all scientists within the department, as it did in the original agreeement.
Depending upon one’s perspective, an end to the Syngenta contract could be good or bad news.
A recent internal campus review of the agreement by the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research found an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward the agreement among faculty and graduate students in the department. The industry funding did not skew faculty research toward applied biotech research, as some had feared it might, the report said.
On the contrary, it found that industry funds allowed Berkeley biologists to explore areas of basic plant biology that would have been too speculative to gain support from peer-reviewed granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
The review also found that students, in particular graduate students, have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the agreement, in terms of more financial support for fellowships and access to both state-of-the-art equipment and proprietary genomics information held by Syngenta and not readily available to outside researchers.
"I think in retrospect that the program worked out pretty much as planned, at least from the department’s point of view," said the author of the internal review, Robert Price, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for research and a professor of political science.
On the other hand, Donald Kaplan, one of only three researchers in the department to turn down Syngenta funding, has changed neither his opinion that "it is a contract with the devil" or his overall negative view of industry-sponsored research in academia.
Still others, like Robert Spear, professor of environmental health sciences, prefer to reserve judgment on the agreement’s impact until an outside review is completed, probably by late summer.
"While I find no reason to doubt the facts presented in the [internal] report, it is important to keep in mind that it emanates from the administrative office that was centrally involved in negotiating the agreement in the first place," Spear noted in an e-mail response to questions from Science magazine. "Its very positive tone underscores the need for the ongoing external study of the Novartis experience at Berkeley."
At the time the controversial research-support contract was signed, Chancellor Robert Berdahl said the agreement itself would be viewed as an experiment that would be carefully reviewed and scrutinized to guide future decisions on industry funding at Berkeley and at research universities elsewhere. In addition to authorizing the internal review, undertaken to answer questions raised by the Academic Senate and others, the administration also provided funds to engage a sociologist from Michigan State University to complete an external study of the contract’s effect on graduate students and on academic freedom.
Outside funding flowing in
Researchers who received money from Novartis said they will be sorry to see the funding end.
"It’s helped our research immensely," said Professor Brian Staskowicz, who manages the grant for PMB. "Work with [Syngenta subsidiary] Torrey Mesa Research Institute has allowed us to do basic research that faculty have leveraged to make grant proposals to federal agencies and get funding."
The Syngenta money comprises about 27 percent of the department’s research funds. Staskawicz believes that funding will be made up for by increased federal research support — much of it won because of "blue sky" research funded by Syngenta. Since the agreement was executed in 1998, outside funding to the department has nearly doubled, excluding the money from Syngenta.
Research AVC Price thinks that the agreement’s negative reception by some sprang from a number of issues, including secrecy surrounding the negotiations, a poor public understanding of the provisions in the agreement, and a public distrust of the agricultural biotechnology industry.
When the then-dean of the College of Natural Resources, Gordon Rausser, announced the agreement at a press conference on Nov. 23, 1998, he was greeted by several vegan pie throwers. Though Rausser dodged a pumpkin pie thrown at him, he was not able to dodge criticism from faculty colleagues in the Academic Senate, nor numerous public brickbats, including a Nature editorial that billed the agreement as an example of the growing industrial influence on academic research, and a lengthy critical article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine.
The major criticisms expressed concerns that Novartis’s influence would steer research into areas the company was interested in commercially. That hasn’t happened, Price says. Nor have other concerns materialized, such as delaying publication of research findings, monopolizing the department’s research inventions, or compromising the freedom of faculty to discuss results at scientific meetings.
"When I began looking into the effects of the Novartis agreement, I expected to find some influence on the department," Price says. "But I was blown away. I did not expect to find that every single project proposed by a faculty member in the department had been funded as is. Plus, proposals for substantial funding — sometimes nearly $1 million over five years — had only to be three to four pages long."
The review concludes that "The Novartis Corp. and its successor, Syngenta, have assumed a ‘hands-off’ posture with respect to the research conducted by PMB faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students."
One question left unanswered by Price’s report is whether Syngenta was satisfied with the results of the five-year agreement.
Carol Mimura, acting director of the campus Office of Technology Licensing, was one of two university negotiators of the Novartis agreement. She believes the company has benefited well from the agreement.
"They received valuable, early access to cutting-edge research results, and collaborated with and hired some of Berkeley’s high-caliber researchers," she says "These are intangibles, but information and employees are vital to industry. In addition, under state law companies also receive significant R&D tax benefits and credits when they sponsor research at UC."
Nevertheless, though the company could have optioned 20 patents during the past four years, it optioned to negotiate exclusive licenses on only four inventions, and currently retains only one of these options. Among the options it elected not to exercise were ones that covered rice and corn gene sequences.
Mimura points out that the agreement benefited the campus and the College of Natural Resources as well as the department. One-third, or $1.7 million, of the yearly funding from Syngenta was overhead split among the UC system, the department, and the college. To date, about $750,000 has gone toward purchase of equipment shared by everyone in the college. In addition, Syngenta paid the campus another $150,000 to support filing for 10 patents, and paid another $50,000 in licensing fees.
Despite apparent positive benefits from the Novartis agreement, many remain concerned about the potentially corrupting influence of large chunks of money from corporations flowing into university laboratories. Top universities like UC Berkeley, where industry funding amounts to only about seven percent of total research monies, can afford to negotiate on their own terms, but smaller places might not be able to do so.
"The agreement catalyzed a broad philosophical debate over whether a university’s research and its faculty can be tarnished by ties with industry. If the university is not a bastion of unbiased research, who is?" Mimura asks rhetorically. "It seems to have spawned a whole new chapter in the field of sociology, the subject of intellectual property and the knowledge economy at the private/public interface.
"Believe me, Berkeley professors are too intractable to become corporate lackeys," she adds. "But what about elsewhere?"