MSU group reviews Berkeley venture into brave new science funding world


EAST LANSING, Mich. When a big corporation acquired the research enterprise of an entire California university science department, it hoped it was sowing a bounty of discovery and profit. Instead, a new report indicates, it probably reaped more grief than it was worth.

That is the greatest legacy of the nation's closely followed and much-debated marriage between University of California-Berkeley and the Swiss pharmaceutical and agrochemical company Novartis.

Today, a group of social and natural scientists at Michigan State University released a report commissioned by the faculty senate at Berkeley that examines the fall-out of an unprecedented partnership.

It was a campus controversy that expanded to become a symbol of the tensions and angst over the very state of contemporary public higher education in California, in land-grant institutions, and across the country.

"This incident was a kind of lightning rod for a whole set of issues about what universities are going to be in the 21st century," said Lawrence Busch, a University Distinguished Professor of sociology and principal investigator. "A lot of people were very unhappy with the general direction of the university. We recommend avoiding these kinds of agreements in the future. While most of the concerns of critics did not materialize, this type of agreement is just asking for trouble and is going to get you more grief than benefits."

The group of 10 MSU experts essentially conducted a post-mortem on the unprecedented partnership that began in November 1998 on the Berkeley campus. Its Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) signed a five-year collaborative research agreement with Novartis in which the company agreed to pay the department up to $25 million in research support over a period of five years.

In this widely discussed and criticized private sponsorship of university research, the PMB also was given access to Novartis' gene-sequencing technology and DNA database on plant genomics. For its part, Novartis was given first rights to negotiate licenses to patents on a proportion of the discoveries made in the department and received two seats on a five-member committee set up to select research projects.

The deal struck several nerves.

Concerns were raised about the influence of industry money on academic research, on the shaping of research priorities and especially on maintaining what many see as the most precious commodity in academe: Credibility.

"I can understand why many want to see products from universities turned into profitable products, but if it does it at the risk of destroying the integrity of the university, essentially what you are doing is killing the goose that lays the golden egg," Busch said.

The Berkeley-Novartis partnership also played out in uncharted waters. Large-scale industry partnerships aren't unheard of in the natural sciences, but are more common in the medical field. Large grants aren't unusual, but typically go to individual researchers or research teams. The wholesale funding of a department was revolutionary and, Busch said, done quickly without proper safeguards.

"It gives the impression that the whole department has been bought that the university is captive of the funding agency," Busch said. "If you want to find out what's going on in the biotech industry would you go to department that is the recipient of substantial largesse by one biotech company? This doesn't go over well with lots of people. "

The group, experts in sociology, plant science, intellectual property and higher education administration, conducted the independent study requested by Berkeley's academic senate

Among its recommendations:

  • Avoid industry agreements that involve complete academic units or large groups of researchers.
  • Reassess the broad implications of conflicts of interest that stretch beyond researchers and include administrators and those serving on national and international advisory panels.
  • Encourage broad debate early in the process of developing new research agendas.
  • Be attentive to creating new goals motivated by self-interest. "We found this created a rather strong bias for members of the department," Busch said. "If somebody waves big dollars in front of someone especially administrators short of cash they will work hard to show that this is a good idea. You have to have some controls; you can't just say because it's a lot of money it's a good idea."
  • Do a better job of educating the public on the specific nature of intellectual property, technology transfer, and the nature of institutional accountability.
  • Begin the difficult task of determining the role a public land-grant university should play in the 21st century.

The review "External Review of the Collaborative Research Agreement between Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc., and The Regents of the University of California" was conducted by Busch; plant biologist Richard Allison; sociologists Craig Harris, Alan Rudy, Toby Ten Eyck and Dawn Coppin; intellectual property manager Bradley Shaw; educational administration expert James Fairweather; and sociology doctoral students Jason Konefal and Christopher Oliver.

The review was conducted with $225,000 from Berkeley and is released today by Berkeley.

"We are hoping this will create a university-wide discussion on these questions and put the issues on the table," Busch said. "These are the critical questions that should be discussed everywhere. They are now being addressed by individual administrators looking to find an extra buck and I'm confident that isn't the way to do it.

"Ideally, this will start a national debate among faculty members about what we'd like the universities to look like, especially public and land-grant universities."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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