Dissecting a Deal

New book examines the pact between Berkeley and Novartis -- and finds that the controversy may have been more important than first recognized.
February 9, 2007

When the University of California at Berkeley and Novartis agreed on a $25 million collaboration in 1998, views at the university and nationally were sharply divided. To some, the pact was a sign that universities were finally moving beyond esoteric research in favor of studies that directly benefit consumers. At the other end of the spectrum, some feared universities seeking corporate dollars would be abdicating their role as guardians of the public interest.

Three years after the deal ended, sociologists from Michigan State University have written a book that closely examines the partnership, which is still discussed at universities around the world. The book is  Universities in the Age of Corporate Science: The UC Berkeley-Novartis Controversy, just published by Temple University Press. The book is based on a report the group did for Berkeley – and provides as in-depth analysis as exists about the evolving nature of public university-corporate ties.

“It’s not that biotech or that industry relations are bad,” says the book’s lead author, Alan Rudy, a faculty member who is now at Central Michigan University. “Nor is it that the opponents are anti-science.” In fact, Rudy says that he and the other researchers who spent close to four years studying the Berkeley-Novartis agreement concluded that the central issue was not even about biotechnology, but something more fundamental -- the mission of public universities.

“The more we looked at it -- biotech was a stand-in for all these historical debates that were emerging,” he said. In fact, it may just be that Berkeley is a symptom of much deeper changes in public universities. “My sense is that there is a tremendous amount of passive restructuring of the university and there isn’t a public discussion of what is going on,” he said.

In essence, the agreement between Novartis and a science department at Berkeley set up a $25 million pool that Berkeley faculty could apply to for grants. The faculty also had access to some databases held by the company. In return, Novartis got access to top-flight researchers and the first rights to negotiate on any patents coming out of the department.

The Context

Much of the controversy would probably not have happened if it had not taken place at Berkeley -- a university whose research excellence is matched by its activist history. Plus, before the deal was even signed, the College of Natural Resources was already deeply divided along two lines of scientific paradigms, which Rudy and colleagues call the populists and the progressives.

In brief, the populists included the faculty members in disciplines such as ecology who approached research from the perspective of sustainable agriculture and organic food systems. These researchers, the book says, see their work as more beneficial to the small, independent farmer. On the other side of the divide are the progressives who see science more as tool for altering the natural ecosystem to suit human needs. Pesticide research is important as is figuring out ways to maximize crop yield for large agribusiness to ensure that food remains cheap to consumers.

As the book recounts, while these two groups had been kept somewhat apart in different colleges, Berkeley restructured a number of departments in the late 80s and early 90s, bringing faculty from these divergent perspectives under the umbrella of the College of Natural Resources. Faculty from a wide spectrum including botany, genetics and molecular biology were consolidated into the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB). Meanwhile other researchers from conservation and resource studies, soil science, and entomology were restructured into the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM).

With both departments now housed in the same college, tensions were palpable, and the book says that the Novartis deal greatly added to the strain.

But even though Berkeley had negotiated a sweetheart deal, others on the campus were not happy. The science wars were raging during the 90s with the term “Frankenfoods” in headlines as Americans debated the meaning of a cloned sheep named Dolly. People were not only worried about the dominance of biotech, but also had concerns that focusing on molecular and genetic science meant abandoning the populist vision of universities. “The media did pick up that this was a struggle about the meaning and future and restructuring of universities,” says Rudy. “However, the most provocative quotes tended to be not about the mission of universities, but about how biotech is going to displace peasants and poison the land. On the other side you had people arguing that their opponents were luddite know-nothings.”

Much of the opposition was lead by faculty in ESPM, including a number of graduate students and Ignacio Chapela, then a non-tenured professor. Berkeley administrators poured fuel on the fire by not being transparent to protestors about details of the contract and their negotiations, according to the new book.

Chapela would later become a focal point in the debate when members from PMB became angry about a study he published that found that cloned genes were ending up in corn plants down in Mexico, which threatened the biotech industry. Chapela’s approval for tenure had been advancing until his study came out. Rudy says that nobody could provide definitive evidence that someone with a grudge was blocking Chapela’s tenure -- as his supporters believed. “We never thought they would tell us and they will probably never open those documents,” he said. “But in the end, he got tenure. Nobody can figure out what turned the tide except a change in personnel.”

In fact, Chapela got tenure shortly after he sued the university in state court over the tenure dispute.

What the Deal Actually Did -- and Didn't Do

Not surprisingly, the worst fears and greatest hopes on both sides never came to pass. In fact, it appears that  the money that Novartis gave Berkeley had had little positive or negative impact. An analysis of the faculty in PMB  shows no perceptible change in grants, patents, and published articles. So the claim that Novartis would dramatically improve the department does not appear to be backed by evidence.

Interestingly, the counterclaims that corporate money would stifle academic freedom are also not evident. In fact, faculty from PMB have argued that Novartis increased academic freedom because it allowed researchers the opportunity to study subjects that they would not have had the funding for otherwise.

“You can’t buy a Berkeley professor,” says Rudy. He adds that the Novartis deal was unique as it came with so few strings attached, but that the Berkeley faculty would not allow someone else to set the agenda. “That’s why they are Berkeley people.”

But now that the door has been open and a corporation has sponsored a complete department, what might happen at a smaller college with even more constraints on funding and less scrutiny than Berkeley? “The danger is that this could happen at an institution of much less renown,” Rudy says.

Rudy says that it is almost impossible to even judge if the deal had a lasting impact on the ag-biotech field. In the late 90s, the market for ag-biotech dried up, so finding any long term signal in the research field or effect at other universities is almost impossible to see.

The only measurable impact from the deal appears to be on the tenure of Ignacio Chapela and some damage to Berkeley’s image in the public (among those who are skeptical of ties to business). “But that’s hard to define,” Rudy says. He adds that people will likely be a bit more circumspect about corporate alliances with universities in the future, but that the public is all for corporate research when it comes to medical breakthroughs.

“Nobody is opposed to cheap diabetes drugs,” he says. “But this question is still in the air for public universities: ‘Why are we here? Are we here to help nature or to foster agriculture?’” Public universities, he argues, have not really addressed this issue so contention is certain to rise again in the future.

However, Gordon Rausser, who was then a dean of the college and is now a professor of agricultural economics, says that he disagrees with many of the conclusions in the book. He says that the concern that academic freedom could have been compromised by the agreement with Novartis is a straw man because the contract drawn up between the company and Berkeley would have never allowed the issue to arise. Secondly, he says that half of the money, like most grants, was skimmed off as overhead and poured back into other departments, including ESPM.

And he says that the money allowed PMB to recruit and support more graduate students that were higher in quality. Any other positive outcomes from the agreement will be difficult to notice because not enough time has passed. "The signals would not be noticeable for the next ten years," he says.

But for Chapela, the answers are quite clear. He agrees that the worst fears never came to pass. Berkeley did not sell itself completely off to a large corporation and Novartis may not have even gotten much out of the deal. But he fears that 50 years from now the Novartis deal will come to be seen as one small step in the progression of public universities become less public and more corporate.

He points out that the corporate predecessor to Novartis – Sandoz – had made a bid to collaborate with Berkeley in the 80s, but this was rejected. “The university wasn’t ready for it then. It took another decade for them to agree to this kind of deal,” he says. “The process is clear and widespread at other campuses, and it’s a very clear trend.”

He says that he still gets calls from across the world to give talks at different universities about what happened at Berkeley. He adds that the Novartis deal only involved one department, but that Berkeley is now among the leading universities in a $500 million research program with BP on alternative fuels and energy. It’s not that this money buys off researchers, but it shapes the future of a university and sets the agenda for the future, he says.

“This is happening at a time when we are seeing the public sector disappearing,” he says. “When we lose our image in the public and then we go to the legislature to get funding and it’s not there, then we have to go back to the corporations for money,” he says. “It’s a self-defeating process.”

Even Rausser agrees with Chapela to some degree on this point. He says that his own research found that public universities have become more privatized. Universities will probably have to work more with corporations in the future, and the best protection is to try and mange this process to ensure transparency and create agreements that protect academics freedom. "Let's be practical," he says.


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