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Novartis Revisited. 
Pro: Bob Buchanan / Con: Dr. Ignacio Chapela 

California Monthly v.112, n.4, Feb02

At the very least, the alliance has resulted in serious questioning of the public role and image of the University.

In November 1998, the Berkeley campus and its Department of Plant and Microbial Biology signed a five-year collaborative research agreement with the Swiss pharmaceutical and agrochemical company 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 Department of Plant and Microbial Biology was also given access to Novartis's 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. In November 2000, the division of Novartis that signed the agreement with Berkeley ceased to exist; the five-year agreement is being continued and managed by its successor firm, Syngenta.

Three years into this ground-breaking agreement, we asked two closely involved faculty members from the College of Natural Resources (CNR), which administers the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, for their assessments of what is still called the Novartis agreement. Professor Bob B. Buchanan, current chair of the department's Division of Microbial Biology, played a key  role in securing the agreement with Novartis in 1998. During that time, assistant professor of microbial ecology Ignacio Chapels was chair of CNR's executive committee and opposed the agreement.


Pro: Bob B. Buchanan

THE BERKELEY- NOVARTIS AGREEMENT HAS BEEN widely discussed in these pages and elsewhere. In a comprehensive review of the agreement published in the Chronicle of Higher Education last June 22, reporter Goldie Blumenstyk pointed out that, after extensive interviews at all levels, she was unable to find a single instance in which the Novartis agreement had overtly compromised research at Berkeley. Blumenstyk concluded that the funds are used in a manner that, in effect, differs little from a standard university grant.

As seen from the outside, Blumenstyk's perception that the agreement differs little from a standard university grant is understandable. However, from within the department, this view does not reflect the significant academic development that has ensued. I can speak to this point with confidence, as I have been involved since the beginning as a member of the team that laid the foundation for the Novartis agreement. As I see it, the benefits to the relevant sectors of the Berkeley campus exceed the return from a typical federal grant in scholarship and overall campus benefit by a wide margin.

My appraisal of the effect of the Novartis agreement on research at Berkeley crystallized with the presentations made last October at the annual retreat of participating Berkeley faculty and Torrey Mesa Research Institute scientists. TMRI is the exploratory research laboratory of the reorganized Novartis Corporation (Syngenta) that participates directly in the agreement.

As a former long-term department chair, I have observed the maturation of the research programs of our faculty members over the years. What I witnessed at the retreat was nothing short of astonishing: The research programs of faculty participating in the agreement had improved in both vigor and quality, in some cases impressively so. Thanks to the research support ($10 million) and, more importantly, to the information exchanged and access to the expertise and facilities at TMRI, a number of faculty programs had moved from the level of solid science to the cutting edge. Attendant with these changes was evidence of the enhanced opportunity of the 10 advanced graduate students and 50 postdoctoral scholars supported by TMRI funds to learn and take advantage of their impressive mix of new information and technologies. Furthermore, consistent with the flexibility of the funds (no strings attached) and contrary to fears expressed by some campus faculty about intellectual freedom, the nature of departmental research programs had not changed and still ran the gamut from the very basic to envisioned application. Nonetheless, several faculty have expressed satisfaction at realizing, through the TMRI interaction, that their basic findings may have application and direct relevance to society.

It was obvious at the retreat that research results continued to be published in leading journals and that faculty members, students, and postdoctoral scholars continued to present findings at prestigious national and international scientific meetings. Further discussions and observations have revealed that, in addition to federal grants, faculty members continue to hold research contracts as well as scientific advisory board and other consulting positions at companies unrelated to TMRI/Syngenta. Finally, it has been noted, particularly by students, that, owing to the TMRI funds, individual faculty have to some extent been freed from grant writing and have more time for research, including experiments at the bench.

The faculty are, however, not the only beneficiaries. It is obvious to all within the department that graduate programs in both plant biology and microbial biology have been strengthened. The $1.25 million in TMRI funds have been used to purchase major research equipment needed for training campus-wide and for student stipends and associated activities, such as lectures and seminars, that benefit the greater biology community. Several early reports highlighted the unease that some of our students felt at not being thoroughly informed of the Novartis agreement during its initial formulation. As details of the agreement have become known, this unease seems to have dissipated.

The benefits of the agreement to the department extend, in a ripple effect, to the college and campus. The College of Natural Resources, which administers the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, has applied its return from the Novartis agreement ($1.25 million) to the recruitment of four new faculty for whom other monies were not available and to a fund for renovating buildings such as Hilgard Hall and Mulford Hall. Unrestricted capital for improvement of such buildings is indeed scarce because, although sorely in need of repair, these facilities are considered seismically safe and therefore do not qualify for state funds.

Like the college, the campus administration is using the funds ($2.5 million) to meet pressing campus needs, such as attracting and retaining faculty. Continuing direction of major sums generated by the Novartis agreement to the common good may help allay concern over the equity issue-i.e., the perception that the Novartis funds created "haves" and "have nots:"

Finally, what about TMRI, whose parent company, Syngenta, has provided the funds for the agreement? Although still mostly in the germinative stage, the far-reaching collaborative programs that have been initiated have strengthened TMRI research by providing information to serve as a launching pad for future projects and by obtaining access to new intellectual property. By forging ties with faculty having decades of experience in their fields, the institute is capitalizing on an investment in technologies ranging from metabolomics to proteomics to genomics. Through these collaborations, TMRI has licensed rights to seven inventions. Interactions with Berkeley have also resulted in the recruitment of Berkeley postdoctoral scholars to staff positions at TMRI.

Just past the midpoint in the five-year contract, the Novartis agreement has more than met expectations. The College of Natural Resources and the campus have been able to improve physical facilities and recruit and retain faculty. The funds made available to the department have strengthened faculty programs, and in some cases given them incisive new direction. There has been a concordant improvement in graduate studies and research opportunities for postdoctoral scholars. TMRI, the provider of the funds, has also benefited, scientifically and through the acquisition of intellectual property. As the collaborative research between TMRI and Berkeley scientists is just getting under way, I foresee that even greater strides will be made in these areas in the future.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, Bob B. Buchanan teaches general biochemistry to undergraduates and plant biochemistry to graduate students. Known for his work on photosynthesis, he and his collaborators have more recently studied cereals, opening the door to a number of promising new technologies.


Con: Ignacio Chapela

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, THE WORLD HAS BEEN rediscovering the essential role of the public sector in providing rational decision-making for our society. The deepest foundation of this role lies in the public university. Despite its importance, the fabric of that foundation is composed of the most vulnerable materials: collegial links between divergent disciplines, involvement in world affairs with an arm's-length relationship to the players, and freedom to pursue ideas and relate the outcome of that pursuit to the general public. At Cal, all these elements were placed at risk with the signing of the "Novartis-Berkeley Strategic Alliance:'

Collegial relationships were shaken by the secretive design and implementation of an agreement that accepted only perfunctory faculty consultation, although it required campus-wide participation. A confidentiality agreement jeopardized the participation of a whole academic unit in the open discourse of the campus. The indispensable distance from players in the world-changing biotech revolution was collapsed by instating a single corporation, Novartis, in a multiple role as fonder, overseer, and potential beneficiary from the workings of the University. The interdisciplinarity of our endeavor was challenged by sharpening an already unbalanced approach to the life sciences through the overwhelming funding of one aspect of biology: DNA research, coincidentally the one aspect through which the funder would hope to profit.

Freedom of intellectual pursuit in biotech was also challenged. Because of the Novartis agreement, researchers at Berkeley hoping to promote the use of DNA manipulations for practical uses have been plagued by crop trashings and general public mistrust of their motivations. Meanwhile, the little research that has been undertaken to explore unexpected and possibly harmful aspects of biotech deployment has been construed as intended to undermine Novartis-funded activities.

Three years into the development of a hastily implemented and poorly followed initiative, its consequences are evident to the sensitive observer of the northwest corner of campus. Where a vibrant network of intellectual interactions should have stood ready for public service, we are instead faced with expensive security surveillance, deep-seated division, and a fog of silence which continues to descend upon us despite brave efforts by some administrators and faculty to warm up the interdisciplinary discourse of our College of Natural Resources.

The designers of the alliance with Novartis were right in identifying their initiative as an act of leadership. But now, after three years of operation, we must ask whether this was the direction in which we wanted to lead the world. By choosing to focus on the undeniable points of alignment in our two agendas, without considering the widely disparate bottom lines of our institutions, we hitched our horses to the wrong cart and gave at least one of the bridles to the wrong driver. In the years since the alliance with Novartis was forged, this error in identifying the right vehicle for our intellectual power has been recognized by scores of public figures and forums here and abroad, not least the California State Senate and the scientific journal of record, Nature. At the very least, the alliance has resulted in serious questioning of the public role and image of the University.

In following the path blazed by the Novartis alliance, the pertinent question to ask is not where we have been, but rather where we did not go. Alternative funding sources have gone unexplored, alternative technologies were not developed, and alternative training for future leaders in critical, interdisciplinary thinking and analysis-so much missing and needed today went unimplemented.

The agriculture-biotech sector is now in frank disarray and retreat, to the point where it is hard to recall the context in which the Novartis-Berkeley deal was struck three years ago. The industry was then portrayed as an unstoppable locomotive that was better joined than questioned; the technology itself as the silver bullet necessary to finally end world hunger and poverty; and our campus simply as a training ground for technologists and managers of this new panacea. This unbridled optimism was tempered only a few months after the agreement was signed, when the largest commercial bank in Europe released a detailed report for its investors, calling on them to reduce their risk in the agbiotech fields. Within a year most of the large corporations including Novartis-had divested themselves from the promise-laden, but now ill-fated liability, of ag-biotech. So much for the promise of finally identifying the winner who could have, at least, paid for the maintenance of our "Kept University," as it was described in the Atlantic Monthly (March 2000).

As for other promises: the $50 million was initially presented to the faculty as the main reason to accept the initiative, one half dedicated to focused programs of interest to Novartis, the other to general capital improvements. Of this, only the first half seems to have materialized. The agreement was also supposed to be run as a serious "experimental" initiative, but there is nothing in its nature or implementation to this point that would conform to any standards of the scientific method. It is hard to see who on campus obtained the much-vaunted access to Novartis's information which would give our University an advantageous edge. Nevertheless, the rights allowed to the funding company's employees to influence the direction of research on campus-not to mention first claims even on research they did not support-was duly implemented and remains unchanged. And the list could go on.

There are many reasons I should not be writing this critical opinion about the Novartis-Berkeley alliance. I do value the financial benefits given to graduate students in plant and microbial biology and the excellent research performed in their laboratories, all supported by Novartis's generosity. And why make myself a party spoiler, when it is evident that nothing will change in the agreement since the administration has apparently decided to quietly allow it to run to its conclusion? But my silence would amount not only to complicity in an ongoing development that I find deeply harmful to the very fabric of our University. My silence would also represent an abdication of my belief in the best critical instinct of our institution. This instinct is the first and last line of defense for the public in a world challenged by rising obscurantism. So I say instead: "Let There Be Light."

Ignacio Chapela teaches microbial ecology in the division of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. He has served on a committee of the National Academy of Sciences to study the environmental impact of transgenic crops, and with his graduate student David Quist published a widely discussed paper in Nature on the contamination of Mexican maize by genetically engineered U.S. corn.


More by Dr. Chapela:

California Monthly URL: http://209.232.194.53/Alumni/Cal_Monthly/main.asp

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