In messy fight between two research universities, U of California at San Diego wins injunction to restore its control over massive research project.

July 27, 2015

A California judge said Friday that she was issuing a temporary injunction to restore control over a massive database of research on Alzheimer’s disease to the University of California at San Diego.

UCSD sought the injunction after the scholar who has led the project announced he would move to the University of Southern California and take the research with him.

While research universities compete against one another for faculty stars and the research projects they lead, the fights rarely end in court battles with the sort of name-calling this one features.

Part of the UCSD statement on Friday’s ruling said that it was an important case because it would discourage “predatory practices” by universities. USC’s statement, meanwhile, accused UCSD of delaying important research on Alzheimer’s.

The dispute is playing out in public as USC is trying to extend its reach in San Diego – and is running into some difficulties doing so, notwithstanding its coup in attracting Paul Aisen, the Alzheimer’s researcher who left UCSD for USC.

The Lawsuit

The UCSD lawsuit charges that USC did more than just recruit a star faculty member. The suit says that Aisen and USC incorrectly told UCSD employees that they might be out of a job if they didn’t follow him to USC. The suit charges that USC used some employees as “double agents” to try to get other employees and research funders to move with the project to USC.

And the suit charges that – without authority – Aisen and colleagues took control of databases for the research that had resided for years at UCSD.

USC has denied any wrongdoing and said that UC San Diego is engaged in sour grapes having lost a star researcher.

The judge’s ruling Friday was not accompanied by a written opinion so it is unclear which of UC San Diego’s arguments were most influential. But in granting the injunction, the judge largely has done what UC San Diego said was essential to happen soon. The judge has not specified the extent of any financial damages that could be owed to UCSD.

USC released a statement after the judge’s announcement saying that it was considering an appeal.

“This decision is an unfortunate development for universities and research institutes, which up to this point have been able to settle questions about scientific moves without resorting to legal action,” the statement said. “More than the courts or universities, research sponsors have the greatest say in where programs should reside. We defer to their expertise and preferences, and invite UCSD to do the same rather than continue a court action that is unnecessarily delaying progress on Alzheimer’s research.”


Aisen, via email to Inside Higher Ed, said: “We all lose here. Science and public health lose when research is torn from the investigators with the passion, knowledge and skill to assure its success.”


UCSD has said that the National Institutes of Health backs its claim on the research and that important principles are at stake in the dispute.

“We never wanted to resort to legal action, but when all reasonable requests to return what is the rightful property of UC San Diego were ignored, there was no alternative,” said David A. Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences and dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a statement. He added that “we simply couldn’t accept or tolerate egregious breaches of academic, medical and legal standards of conduct as outlined in the complaint, which are against the best interests of UC San Diego, our employees, our partners and frankly against the best interests of progress against Alzheimer’s disease.”

The Battle for San Diego

The dispute comes at a time that USC and UCSD are both pushing for greater research prominence in general, and in UCSD’s home territory of San Diego. USC has been raising huge sums of money and spending much of those funds to build up research teams.

The loss of Aisen’s team (assuming many remain at USC if UCSD regains control of the project) was a big loss for UCSD.

But UC San Diego will be announcing a big coup today that is another win in its competition with USC. The La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, one of a number of freestanding research institutes in Southern California, will announce that it creating an affiliation with the UCSD, and is rejecting a proposed affiliation with USC, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

The Union-Tribune reported that USC did not comment on the La Jolla institute’s decision But Brenner of UCSD told the Union-Tribune that there is a key difference in the way different institutions collaborate.

“All of the institutions in San Diego collaborate; there’s a very collegial atmosphere,” said Brenner. “USC doesn’t want that. It wants to buy, rather than build, academic programs.”

USC also tried and failed last year to pull off a proposal to merge the Scripps Research Institute into the university. Scripps scrapped the idea after its faculty lobbied against becoming part of USC.



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