By Carl Irving
ALMOST ALL FACULTY members in an entire department at the University of California,
Berkeley, including plant specialists noted for their research in genetic engineering,
have signed on to an unprecedented five-year, $25 million agreement with a single
||Graduate student Johann Leveau works in a plant and microbial biology
lab at UC Berkeley.
In return for its investment, Novartis of Switzerland will have first bid on about
one-third of the research discoveries of the highly productive Department of Plant
and Microbial Biology, whether they were sponsored by the company or the federal
or state government.
Some Berkeley faculty members have criticized the agreement because it ties the
university too closely to commercial interests, others because it further erodes
the faculty's role in campus decision-making.
But supporters, including 29 of the department's 31 professors, point out that
the pact allows faculty members to choose the research, has no limits on publishing
their findings, and creates a working alliance with a company that has a $2.5 billion
budget for research and development in the life sciences.
The 29 professors have received their first installments from Novartis -- $50,000
to $200,000 each -- for studies subject only to approval by a committee, a majority
of whose members are faculty colleagues.
They also will have access to Novartis' own research, information that proponents
say no campus has the means, equipment or staff to collect on its own. They foresee
that this will provide, for the first time, a path from basic research at the campus
lab to application and development.
The Novartis database "enables us to interact with the company to let technology
grow up," said Bob B. Buchanan, department chairman. "Technologies are
often born in a university's basic research laboratory, but they can't grow up at
a university...Faculty members now won't have to take machetes to cut through to
make a trail.
"Without that money, we would have been in serious difficulty, and because
of that support, we have a fine crop of students coming in who otherwise might have
enrolled in better-funded, medically related fields," Buchanan said. Part of
the Novartis payment is budgeted for graduate programs, fellowships and seminars,
and for attending national conferences.
"Now we can tell grad students and post-docs that we can think longer term
and say 'here's the direction' and 'we're going to go,"' said Peggy Lemaux,
a member of Buchanan's department. An expert on using genomics to improve wheat and
corn production, Lemaux received a $150,000 grant from Novartis this year. "Now
we have the opportunity to say we'd like to try this sort of hare-brained scheme,
because the university sees you have a track record of producing," she said.
"Under the federal system, the project virtually has to be done before you can
apply for money."
The arrangement also differs from far more typical contracts with private companies,
in which individuals or small groups of faculty do specified research that might
entail confidentiality and the sponsor's exclusive rights to findings.
The Berkeley agreement has inspired other major American research universities
to seek similar agreements with industry. Dean Gordon Rausser, of the Berkeley College
of Natural Resources, who directed the successful negotiations, said he personally
knows of at least three such efforts.
Rausser said the alliance provides "an optimal fit" between academic
research objectives and an industrial partner's goals, while maintaining "absolute
faculty freedom and autonomy, obtaining otherwise cost-prohibitive technological
resources for our faculty, and maximizing discretionary resources for our infrastructure
and graduate programs."
Many agree with Rausser.
"This is a brilliantly conceptualized model for virtually every institution
in the country," said Louis Berneman, managing director of the Center for Technology
Transfers at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Association of University
Technical Managers. "It preserves academic freedom (but) allows knowledge created
responsibly to be applied for the public good from the laboratory to the market place."
The pact provides that Novartis has the right to submit the first bid on faculty
discoveries sponsored by it or by government agencies, up to the proportion of its
support for department research -- about one-third of the total.
Novartis' new partner -- Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
-- is regarded by peers as one of the best in the world. For instance, Buchanan and
others in his laboratory have discovered a way to exploit a naturally occurring product,
called thioredoxin, to make proteins, such as those found in wheat and milk, more
digestible and less allergenic.
Eleven members of his department have internationally known research programs
in biotechnology, and the faculty includes some of the world's leading experts on
plants and microbes. Their studies locate and determine the functions of genes in
crops. The next step, genetic engineering, is more controversial. It involves splicing
genes from different organisms, leading to discoveries which increase crop production
and produce more effective pesticides.
Yet deep differences persist on campus over the terms of this alliance and its
consequences. Many professors outside the department believe that the faculty Academic
Senate was shut out of a vital discussion about an agreement that some fear could
ultimately threaten traditional academic principles.
"There is an underlying competition for the soul of the university," said
Todd LaPorte, political science professor and chairman of the Academic Senate's research
committee. Many faculty members fear the Novartis deal signifies a major step in
a trend toward diluting "the degree to which we continue our commitment to a
wide range of needs to our society," he said.
||Dean Gordon Rausser of the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources,
directed negotiations with Novartis.
"Absent state support, our leaders are pushed into a commercial direction.
How far are we down the path of privatization, of essentially diluting the public
patrimony of an intense institutional investment for the public in the interest of
some part of that public? There's been an explosion of faculty concern, on the part
of a faculty that usually focuses on its individual research and teaching activities,"
He cited a disputed survey which purportedly shows that two-thirds of the faculty
in the College of Natural Resources disagreed with the terms of the contract.
Seventy-five of 120 faculty in the college's four departments responded to the
poll conducted late last year by Ignacio Chapela, chairman of the college's executive
committee and assistant professor of microbial biology in the Department of Environmental
Science, Policy and Management. But Dean Rausser contends that the survey contained
biased and misleading questions which skewed the results. He claims that the answers
to the direct questions regarding the contract show "overwhelming support."
Chapela vigorously denied this. The majority oppose the contract, he said in an
interview, because "it is about the extension of this agreement, initiated by
a few faculty members, to this college and campus...The most important thing is not
the research but the image -- we are selling the logo of the university very cheaply."
That gets to the heart of the objections, according to Robert C. Spear, chairman
of the Academic Senate and director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental
Health in the School of Public Health.
Spear is "ambivalent" about the agreement but said "there are faculty
members within the college who feel that they're not a part of this and don't want
to be part of this, but they are a part of it just because of the way the agreement
was concluded. I think they're worried about guilt by association in a way, because
this agreement was entered into without their consent. That's what bothers people."
"We fear that in our public university, a professor's ability to attract
private investment will be more important than academic qualifications, taking away
the incentives for scientists to be socially responsible," two of Chapela's
department colleagues, Associate Professor Miguel A. Altieri and Professor Andrew
Paul Gutierrez, wrote in a letter published in the UC Berkeley alumni magazine California
Altieri said in an interview that he spent the last two decades "trying to
make agricultural systems self-sufficient by using natural enemies that cannot be
captured by corporations, so that farmers don't need to buy their pesticides."
But Berkeley lost support for such efforts eight years ago when it eliminated its
division of biological control, which had concentrated on such goals.
"For more than 40 years we trained leaders in the world about biological
control...A whole theory was established here, because pesticides cause major environmental
problems," Altieri said. "They lose their impact, and the cost of human
poisoning of farm workers in California and worldwide is alarming."
Altieri says angrily that the leadership at Berkeley headed in the wrong direction,
seeking support for gene-altering research, while his and colleagues' research has
received no such support. "Who are they to decide for the university?"
he asked. "This is a public university. We have social responsibilities to the
state. Who gave the right to a group of professors and deans to do this deal, when
it's supposed to be a public university with faculty governance?"
Donald T. Kaplan, a professor of plant biology who is in his 35th year at Berkeley,
agrees with Altieri. Kaplan is one of the two department faculty members who refused
to sign up with Novartis. He said the deal "drives a further wedge between research
and teaching...The university no longer is an independent force. Its research is
done as a tool for industry."
As at other research campuses, faculty members perceive a waning role for academic
leadership as boundaries between campus and private business ventures fade away.
The contract "is one step further away from the reality of a publicly-funded
university, where all ideas rise or fall on their own merit and where tensions exist
between the demands of academic freedom and the politics of the state of California,"
Robert Berring, a law professor at Berkeley's Boalt Hall, wrote in the alumni magazine.
"For all the anger, silliness, and lugubrious pretensions of Berkeley campus
politics, the one thing that has always impressed me was that it was a faculty-controlled
"To some degree the Senate has been ignored and emasculated (by the administration),"
said David Littlejohn, emeritus professor of journalism and chairman of the Academic
Senate's academic freedom committee. "That's very rare." Questions submitted
by the Senate to the administration were ignored. "'Trust us' was the sum and
substance of the response," Littlejohn said.
But Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl said in an interview that the faculty
was kept fully informed and that all traditional faculty rights and freedoms remained
fully protected. In fact, Dean Rausser contends that the faculty got unusual attention:
"When's the last time the entire Academic Senate and other faculty have seen
an agreement before it was signed?" he asked. "It hasn't happened on the
Berkeley campus, and I doubt seriously that it's happened anywhere else; in fact
I know it hasn't happened at places like MIT or Stanford."
Eight three-hour meetings between administrators and faculty preceded the agreement
with Novartis, according to one administrator. Berdahl and others call the agreement
an "experiment" that will be monitored by experts appointed by the chancellor.
And they note that, under terms of the contract, the agreement can be cancelled after
a year's notice.
The formula for limiting Novartis' funding to a third of the department's total
research support insures academic freedoms, the University of Pennsylvania's Berneman
said in an interview. He cited a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine
in December 1996 by David Blumenthal, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard
Medical School, who surveyed more than 2,000 faculty members in the life sciences
at 50 U.S. universities. Blumenthal concluded that their research remained unbiased
if support from business and industry totaled less than two-thirds of the funding.
Rausser and other administrators contend that objections on campus tend to reflect
a mix of naivete and envy that could block efforts needed to adjust to the changing
"If we allow a minority of students and a handful of faculty to control the
research agenda for other faculty, fewer outstanding professors will come here, fewer
of the best students will enroll and ultimately the university will attract less
public support," Rausser said.
Many members of the Academic Senate who got involved "know nothing about
industry-university collaboration, and fastened on to aspects of this agreement that
were represented to them as a great departure," said Vice Chancellor and Provost
Carol T. Christ, Berkeley's second in command, who helped get the contract approved.
"I don't see it as that unique. This is not like a sort of satanic force. Proponents
argue it's a carefully prepared agreement, an appropriate way to respond to changing
conditions of the biotech industry and the changing face of university research.
"The college contains a very wide mix of disciplines and very opposite political
points of view...It's a very contentious college, because you have everyone from
the kind of Birkenstock-wearing, save-the-planet types to people who are very much
involved in genetic research and modifications of the genetic structure of plants
in order to create greater productivity in agriculture," she added.
"The college has a history of intense political animosity in it," the vice
chancellor said. "On the shoulders of the Novartis agreement rests a much larger
debate about biotechnology. I've been concerned personally that the university doesn't
seem to be engaging that debate in a constructive way."
||Professor Robert C. Spear, chairman of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate,
worries about pressures the agreement might put on faculty members.
Chancellor Berdahl believes there is no alternative to accepting research support
from private sources, something that has in fact been happening for decades. The
Novartis agreement is different only in that it was negotiated with an entire academic
department rather than with an individual, he said. The chancellor contended that
the university cannot depend solely on publicly-funded research, although "our
public interest has to be of paramount concern to us."
The Novartis contract has its roots in earlier efforts at Berkeley, plus a steadily
growing commitment among firms to sponsor university research. Nationally, industrial
support reached $1.8 billion in 1998, a 33 percent increase in five years, and double
the amount spent a decade ago. Last year, industry support represented more than
seven percent of the overall amount spent on campus research nationwide, and is expected
to double in the next decade.
Such agreements became possible following congressional legislation in 1982, giving
universities the right to license patentable inventions. Before then, many discoveries
sponsored by federal research had never become commercialized. Since then, campuses
increased patent licensing by 75 percent from 1990 to 1995, while patent royalties
more than doubled and licensing fees nearly tripled, from $248 million in 1992 to
$611 million in 1997.
UC President Richard C. Atkinson has encouraged more research ties to industry.
His office boasts that the nine-campus system "is the most productive university
in the country in moving its ideas into the marketplace," leading the nation
in the number of patents produced and in patent revenues. In the past five years,
the Berkeley campus alone has had 29 "spinoffs" -- companies founded by
faculty or graduates.
Two unusual contracts involving private institutions preceded the Berkeley-Novartis
The Monsanto Company has been providing varying amounts, currently about $5 million
a year, for biomedical research at the Washington University of St. Louis medical
school since 1982. The company, headquartered in St. Louis, provides grants through
a committee composed of three Washington University faculty members and two Monsanto
employees, and the awards are based "more on scientific merit than on industrial
relevance or market issues," according to Andrew Neighbour, associate vice chancellor
for technological management. "It's a valuable program, and both parties are
delighted with it," he said. Monsanto has the right to first bid on research
it has funded, but all Monsanto-sponsored research is subject to campus patents,
and faculty investigators are free to publish results.
An outgrowth of the long-standing ties, Neighbour said, has been the non-profit
Donald R. Danforth Plant Sciences Center in St. Louis, involving Monsanto, Washington
and Purdue universities, and the University of Illinois.
A decade later, Scripps Research Institute (SRI), which is not affiliated with
any university, agreed to terms with Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company that subsequently
merged with another firm to become Novartis, for $30 million a year in exchange for
the right to first bid on all biomedical research findings. The National Institutes
of Health interceded because it did not want a single private company to monopolize
the research of a major center that receives NIH funding. As a result, the agreement
was amended to limit Sandoz to 39 percent instead of 100 percent, and funding was
reduced to $20 million annually, about ten percent of SRI's budget.
Grants are unrestricted, and one of the benefits has been to recruit new scientists,
including beginners, SRI officials said. "At no time can Novartis tell us what
research to do or not to do or prevent us from publication," said Arnold LaGuardia,
SRI's senior vice president. "We preserved academic freedom with unrestricted
Shortly after the SRI agreement was signed, former Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin
Tien established a biotechnology planning board to develop strategies for stable
long-term arrangements with corporations for technology transfers in biotechnology.
The model provided for undesignated research support in return for the first right
to negotiate for a fixed percentage of patentable discoveries.
Tien, a professor of mechanical engineering, had watched nearby Stanford University
flourish with such arrangements involving computer and related technologies that
helped create Silicon Valley. He also had watched UC Berkeley faculty and graduates
help to establish some of the world's leading biotech firms, such as Genentech and
Chiron. So Tien and his advisors anticipated that medical and cell biologists would
provide Berkeley's first model contract. But negotiations with a large pharmaceutical
firm fell through and five years passed before the plan was used successfully by
Dean Rausser and the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.
The department sought industrial support, Rausser and Buchanan said, because private
spending for food and agricultural research tripled between 1960 and the 1990s, while
federal and state support declined. By the '90s, support for such studies had dropped
to less than two percent of the annual federal research budget.
Rausser led the search for a contract by turning traditional university-industry
negotiations upside down.
Ordinarily, campuses and their faculties seek research support by writing requests
and then waiting passively for research proposals from government agencies or industries.
But Rausser drew up a plan based on the Tien group's design and called for competing
bids. "Contrary to prior practice," Rausser said, "the alliance was
structured by Berkeley, and the corporate candidates were asked to compete among
each other to meet its conditions."
After interviewing a number of interested representatives, the dean invited five
firms to submit proposals, and three responded: Monsanto, Novartis, and a partnership
between DuPont and Pioneer Hi-Bred. Assurance of academic freedom, faculty ownership
of discoveries and Novartis' "adherence to university professional standards,"
were key reasons that its offer was accepted after lengthy negotiations, Rausser
Administrators held 28 meetings with scientists and Novartis officials before
the contract signing. "One wonders if as much thought went into the Magna Carta,
let alone the Declaration of Independence," Buchanan said.
The Novartis agreement caused no stir among members of the UC Board of Regents,
according to Bill Bagley, a former state legislator and a regent for the past decade.
In fact, Bagley could recall no board discussions on such issues, and he regards
increases in industrial support as inevitable. "Forty years ago the state covered
60 percent of the operating budget," he recalled. "It's been going down
steadily, so it's no longer a state university but a state-subsidized one."
Clark Kerr, a former UC president and Berkeley chancellor, said agreements such
as this require "supervision -- an individual faculty member wants to get his
money and isn't concerned with all the repercussions about what he's doing. So you
can't leave it up to the individual researcher."
The contract illustrates Dean Rausser's vision of a successful research university:
one surrounded by a cluster of industries feeding on "usable research"
produced on the campus. The path from innovation to the marketplace travels full
circle, he told a national meeting of fellow agricultural economists in August, because
the industries hire the graduates, enriching the campus with patent royalties, and
helping to make the campus attractive to the best faculty and students.
"Without proper policy design and implementation, universities could become
pawns of powerful private interests," Rausser said. But he believes universities
must help spawn commercial applications, because the lines between pure and applied
research have faded.
"Now that a number of companies have moved forcefully into long-term research
and development in the field of life science, their planning horizons have become
more aligned with those of research universities," Rausser said. "If it
were not for public/private research partnerships, it is unclear when or if critical
technologies such as lasers, protease inhibitors and bioengineering would have made
their way into the marketplace...Now, if over time there is a drift away from faculty
exercising their best judgment, and their judgment (is) being influenced by the incentives
that exist with regard to commercialization, then it's a failure."
||"Who gave the right to a group of professors and deans to make
this deal?" asked Miguel Altieri, one of two department faculty members who
refused to sign the agreement.
This prospect nags at Robert Spear, Berkeley's Academic Senate chairman, who has
no doubt that Novartis will influence research in the Department of Plant and Microbial
Biology. "The question is: How pervasive is it? The agreement permits Novartis
first bid on about a third of the research results. That's clearly a big chunk."
Spear expects that new faculty in the department will be under pressure to join
in the Novartis contract. But Rausser says that, in fact, two newly hired professors
in the department this year declined to become part of the alliance at this point.
The department was able to hire them because of the overhead funding that came with
the contract, he said.
Yet there is that permanent "philosophical crevasse," in Spear's words,
within the College of Natural Resources, between those who favor gene engineering
and those who talk of sustainable agriculture through biological control.
The dean is all too aware that such differences won't end any time soon. During
a ceremony in which he publicly announced the Novartis agreement last fall, he spotted
a pie sailing toward his head and had to call on his experience as a teenage boxer.
Rausser, who had been a welterweight Golden Gloves title holder, ducked just in time,
and the missile splattered harmlessly on a blackboard behind him, only briefly interrupting
proceedings. Although the incident involved off-campus demonstrators, it could not
have surprised many administrators or faculty.
Carl Irving is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area.