Study Eyes Influence of Private Funds On Research

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The controversial research agreement between UC Berkeley and the multi-national company Novartis is under the microscope once again thanks to a new study by two universities.

The nationwide study, currently being conducted by Oregon and Portland state universities, will examine the relationship between private enterprises and academic research institutions, and its influence on research, education and the sharing of information.

The collaboration between UC Berkeley and the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, which has blurred the lines between industry and academia, gave the College of Natural Resources $25 million for research over five years.

In return, Novartis, which has since been renamed Syngenta, has the right to negotiate licenses on many of the university's research findings, and receives 30 days' advance notice to review all proposed publications and presentations by participating faculty

members and graduate students. Syngenta also occupies half of the seats on the college's advisory committee and two of five seats on the research committee.

Terri Lomax, director of the study and a botany professor at Oregon State University, said she hopes the study will shed light on the largely debated issue of privatized funding for universities.

"We need to find out if (private funding) is a good idea or if some things should change. We'll have data rather than just rumor and suspicion, and that can be used to make wise policy decisions," Lomax said.

She said she expects results to differ among the large land grant universities, private universities and small land grant universities, which are all part of the study.

Those supporting the 1998 deal between UC Berkeley and Syngenta say it has allowed for expanded research capability for more costly projects. But the collaboration has also caused suspicion among UC Berkeley faculty and state lawmakers, who say such agreements defeat the purpose of a public research institution by causing researchers and scholars to be influenced by profit-making motives.

The Department of Agriculture provided $2 million for the three-year study, expected to be completed at the end of 2004.

The data will be collected by agricultural bio-technologists, economists, sociologists and non-profit groups such as The Farm Foundation and the Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy.

Miguel Altieri, a UC Berkeley professor in the College of Natural Resources, said research funded privately is often surrounded by secrecy and subject to intellectual property rights.

"(It) means that the findings remain subject to patents and are kept secret," Altieri said. "That goes against the mission of the University of California, which is a public university, where all our research should remain public goods."

But Bob Buchanan, also a UC Berkeley professor in the College of Natural Resources, argues that outside interests do not apply to the funding provided by the Syngenta agreement because the research is completely undirected.

"There are no strings attached to the money so (the criticism) certainly couldn't apply. It's ideal in the sense that it's totally undirected," Buchanan said.

The Syngenta agreement supports research that might be too difficult or otherwise impossible without additional funding, Buchanan said. Researchers also benefit from interaction with the institute, which provides equipment and technological capabilities not available to university scientists.

In May 2000, the controversial coalition was grilled by the state Senate. Then-Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles, said the agreement put the university "in bed" with a corporate giant. Along with criticizing the company's possession of seats on the advisory and research committees, Hayden condemned the requirement that professors sign a confidentiality agreement regarding access to the company's private database.

In a petition drafted by the Students for Responsible Research in 1999, students, faculty and university staff called for an amendment to the agreement. The Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture also filed a petition, claiming that the agreement put the university's "academic integrity at stake."

Significant study of the deeper impact caused by privatized funding has not yet occurred, wrote Richard Scheffler and Marcus Harvey in the 2001 edition of "Footnotes," produced yearly by the American Association of University Professors. And until the results of the study are completed, the Novartis-UC Berkeley agreement continues to set precedent.

"Berkeley's Plant and Microbial Biology department is serving as a barometer for industry-university collaborations across the country," Scheffler and Harvey wrote.


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