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Novartis agreement became ‘lightning rod’ for debate
Campus’s experience will help guide discussion on future direction of public universities, external review finds

| 02 September 2004

An external review of the much-debated $25-million research-support contract between UC Berkeley and agricultural biotechnology company Syngenta, formerly Novartis, finds that the worst fears — and the best hopes — surrounding the agreement failed to materialize.

Berdahl on the Novartis Agreement
Chancellor Berdahl
It is hard to know what to make of a recently concluded independent review of the research agreement between the Novartis Corp. and the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.

As the chancellor who signed off on the deal, I feel vindicated by the report’s overall positive conclusions yet mystified by its authors’ recommendation to nonetheless avoid similar contracts in the future.

It is clear that the idea of industry funding of university research makes some people uncomfortable. In some ways, this is a good thing. The independence and credibility of university research is the gold standard and must always be protected from influences that are self-serving. Yet limiting connections with industry to avoid the impression of a problem even when none exists seems short-sighted.

In today’s knowledge-based society, universities have a greater than ever responsibility to transfer academic research to industry so that it can help drive economic growth and enhance the overall well being of society. Why shouldn’t industry help both to fund research and to bring it to the marketplace?

In our decision to approve the agreement one aspect was critical: the funds the corporation was providing would come to the campus without restrictions. The agreement we signed specified that the only limitations on how the money was to be used was that research projects were to be undertaken in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and in the general field of plant and microbial biology.

To ensure that academic freedom was maintained and that the research agenda was not swayed by the funding source, research projects were selected by a committee on which department faculty were in the majority, effectively providing control over what projects were funded.

In the end, according to the report, “the experience with [the agreement] was viewed by most Plant and Microbial Biology faculty as enhancing their academic freedom rather than restricting it...” The controls put in place at the outset worked.

If the Novartis agreement — and accompanying controversy — has shown us anything, it is that developing effective research partnerships with industry and ensuring confidence that the core values of the university are preserved is a challenging task, not just for Berkeley, but for all research universities.

I do not believe that we should abandon industry-university funding agreements or shy away from new approaches in the future simply because they are controversial. I do believe that such agreements must:

• Preserve the university’s status as a truly independent source of public policy advice. This is especially vital in critical areas of technology policy related to areas of public health and the environment.

• Preserve the university’s unique role as a completely open environment where the search for new knowledge is the highest ideal. And where all ideas are heard and the free flow of ideas and information is encouraged.

• Ensure that disclosure mechanisms are regularly reviewed and updated when needed to insure that faculty avoid conflicts of interest that may arise in various forms of industrial partnerships.

To the extent that future agreements are seen by all — universities, industry, and, most importantly of all, the public — to clearly meet these goals, the results of our most recent “experiment” will be well worth the controversy it has engendered.

Despite those mixed findings, the review recommended that the university avoid future agreements with industry that involve entire academic units or large groups of researchers. “While an intriguing experiment,” the report concludes of the contract, “there appears little rationale for repeating the approach.”

Chancellor Robert Berdahl said that he was “perplexed” by the recommendation, following what he termed “the report’s overall positive conclusions.” (The chancellor’s response to the report appears at right.)

The 1998 deal authorized a five-year collaboration between the campus’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) and what was then the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute (NADI), a research arm of parent company Novartis. The unprecedented agreement immediately sparked intense debate over whether the agreement would unduly influence the direction of faculty research and restrict academic freedom.

At the time the controversial research-support agreement was signed, Chancellor Berdahl said the deal itself would be viewed as an experiment that would be carefully reviewed and scrutinized. Ultimately, the administration authorized an internal review, undertaken to answer questions raised by Berkeley’s Academic Senate and others. The review by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, released in January 2003, reported a generally positive outcome of the agreement.

By November 2000, the campus had established a committee to recruit and select the researchers for an external study. A sociologist from Michigan State University was chosen to complete the external review of the contract’s effect on UC Berkeley’s graduate students and on academic freedom.

“It became apparent to us that a lot of the concerns were ‘what ifs,’ and most of these things couldn’t be answered ahead of time,” said Robert Spear, who was vice chair of the Divisional Council of the Academic Senate at the time the agreement was signed. Spear was one of the Academic Senate members who helped push for an independent evaluation when the agreement was signed.

The $225,000 Michigan State report, released in early August, found that “the agreement has not produced the major changes that many feared it would,” with no PMB faculty grant proposal rejected and no evident pressure to conduct research in areas of commercial interest to Syngenta.

Rather, the report found that PMB researchers credited increased funds, as well as access to state-of-the-art equipment and proprietary information, with allowing them “to explore research questions that they otherwise would have foregone or postponed until they had more initial results to support a government grant proposal.”

During the course of the contract, Syngenta provided 27 percent, on average, of the total research funding for the PMB department, according to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

At the same time, the report found that the agreement failed to generate anticipated benefits in the form of patent rights and royalties from discoveries made during the contract period. Of the 20 discoveries patented during the contract period, Syngenta chose to pursue only three options, none of which remains active today.

Beyond the quantifiable outcomes of the agreement, the report emphasized the need for greater transparency in the university’s dealings with private industry, noting that many of the objections to the agreement focused on the lack of input early in the negotiations.

“Industry is not anxious to conduct contract negotiations in public,” said Spear. “But we clearly need to learn to tread the difficult path of acknowledging their reasonable needs for confidentiality and, at the same time, meet our obligations as a public institution.”

C. Judson King, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, the campus’s administrative base for the external review, said the report highlights the need to carefully evaluate how industrially funded projects fit the role of the research university.

“Since Berkeley was the first university campus to go into an agreement involving an entire department, we couldn’t foretell everything that might happen,” said King, who was UC provost at the time the Novartis deal was signed.

The relationship with industry points to one of the most enduring legacies of the Novartis pact. According to the report, the deal effectively brought to the surface a long-simmering debate about the core mission of public universities and the role private industry should play in academia.

“The agreement became a lightning rod for issues that have been affecting Berkeley and universities across the country in the last 20 years,” said Lawrence Busch, the study’s principal investigator. He pointed to the financial pressures public universities face as a dominating factor in the deal with Syngenta. “There’s been a mission creep that has occurred among public universities as they see all kinds of funds declining,” he said. “State funding is erratic, especially in California, and administrators are finding themselves faced with one fiscal crisis after another.”

As a result, research institutions have increasingly turned to private industry for alternative sources of funding, he said.

The changes in funding sources reflect a larger identity crisis in public higher education, according to the report, whose authors note the overlapping yet distinct roles served by universities: as “engines of growth,” “sources of societal betterment,” and “generators of new knowledge.”

The report’s authors argue that the “engine of growth” model currently prevails, pointing to the positive impact the state’s education system has had on the economy and the significant percentage of startups formed by Berkeley faculty.

How well that growth model co-exists with Berkeley’s founding land-grant mission, which combines applied research with public service and education, needs to be examined, according to the report.

The report also concluded that the existence of the Novartis agreement played a role in the handling of the tenure case of Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor of microbial biology and a critic of the Novartis contract. Chapela continues to teach through fall semester 2004, pending an appeal of his tenure review.

Chancellor Berdahl was reluctant to comment on the tenure case because the appeal is underway. He did say he does not believe the Novartis debate was a factor in Chapela’s tenure review.

“While there are certain factual errors in the report that need to be explained at a future time, the paper correctly raises the question of the role of public universities in today’s society,” said Anne MacLachlan, senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education and UC Berkeley’s point person for the external review.

“Universities are being treated more and more like a business, a trend that is not only affecting faculty through the types of grants they receive, but by the way students are seen as clients,” said MacLachlan. “The larger world of public universities can learn a lot from the experience at UC Berkeley.”

Indeed, one of the goals of the external review is to provide a case study from which other public universities can learn.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone involved in the Novartis deal acted in good faith, but they all had different views of what a university should be,” said Busch of Michigan State. “The same issues are being discussed on my campus, and by colleagues at other institutions across the country. As the preeminent public land-grant university in the country, Berkeley is particularly well-suited to lead the debate.”

The complete report is available online. Three bound copies also are available through the Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library.

The campus internal review, “The Novartis Agreement: An Appraisal,” is also online, as is a Berkeleyan story reporting on it.