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Genetically Engineered Corn Article

Critic of biotech corn fears UC won't give him tenure
Junior professor fought school's ties with industry

San Francisco Gate
Posted 03/24/2003
Tom Abate, Chronicle Staff Writer

In a flap that raises new questions about corporate ties to universities, some academics are wondering whether the junior UC Berkeley professor who has become a leading biotech industry critic can get a fair hearing in a tenure review that has already gone twice as long as usual.

The squabble, which offers a rare peek at the secretive tenure process, revolves around Ignacio Chapela, who in 1998 led a fight against a controversial research partnership between the biotech firm Novartis and Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.

Chapela, a critic of biotech agriculture, also co-wrote a journal article in 2001 in which he reported finding gene fragments from bioengineered corn in the genomes of native Mexican maize.

The startling finding suggested that bioengineered crops could contaminate regular crops and might reduce biodiversity. The journal later backed away from the study after pro-biotech scientists criticized Chapela's methods.

Now Chapela's allies off and on campus say Berkeley Professor Jasper Rine, who sits on a nine-member tenure review committee, has such close ties to Novartis and to the biotech industry that he can't be trusted to give the junior professor a fair hearing.

"What we're talking about is a conflict of interest as naked as it gets," said David Noble, a science historian at York University in Toronto.

Noble made his allegations about Rine in a recent letter to Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, a copy of which was sent to The Chronicle.

Noble, a longtime critic of research partnerships between universities and corporations, noted that Rine co-founded a biotech company called Acacia Biosciences in 1995. Citing published press releases, Noble says Acacia licensed one of Rine's patented biotech inventions to the crop protection division of Novartis.

After initially agreeing to meet a Chronicle reporter to answer conflict charges, Rine stayed away after UC Berkeley officials told him that tenure decisions, which involve personnel matters, must be made in confidence to protect the integrity of the process.

"Jasper has absolutely nothing to hide," said UC Berkeley spokesman George Strait, who answered questions about Rine's alleged conflicts and the status of Chapela's case even though it had "never been done before."

Chapela's tenure case was probably destined to break precedent, given the junior professor's outspoken opposition to the Novartis agreement.

Under that deal, in its fifth and final year, Novartis -- whose agricultural division is now called Syngenta -- agreed to provide up to $25 million in funding in return for a role in handing out the money and certain rights to the findings arising from the work it sponsored.

NOVARTIS DEAL HELD UP

Critics of university-corporate partnerships made the Novartis deal a poster child for complaints about the erosion of academic independence, and the contract earned Berkeley an unflattering spotlight in a March 2000 Atlantic Monthly article entitled "The Kept University."

Richard Malkin, former dean of Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, sponsored Chapela's tenure bid last May. Malkin said he was so concerned about the potential for conflicts that he voiced his concerns about Rine to Vice Provost Jan de Vries, the administration official who works with the faculty's tenure reviewers.

Malkin said he told de Vries that Rine sat on one of the two committees that were formed to oversee the Novartis agreement, and suggested that, as a result, Rine ought to recuse himself from Chapela's case.

"If you wanted to avoid all appearance of conflict, you don't want anyone with an association with the Novartis contract reviewing the tenure of the most outspoken opponent of that agreement," Malkin said.

But Strait, the UC spokesman, said any conflict of interest concerns involving Rine were premature because Chapela's tenure review -- which has already lasted about twice as long as the four-month average -- is on hold while reviewers await additional material from Chapela's department.

"They (the budget committee) really haven't considered it yet," Strait said of Chapela's case. "They're not at a place where a recusal or nonrecusal decision would even come up."

To further complicate the tenure matter, Chapela's research has sparked a scientific debate about whether he showed that genetically engineered corn has contaminated ordinary corn plants -- or whether he misinterpreted his own data.

Biotech scientists at Berkeley and other institutions quickly questioned Chapela's findings, prompting the journal Nature to run an unusual apology last April saying that upon reconsideration, the journal's editors "concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper."

Since then, scientists on both sides of the biotech divide have weighed in to support or reject Chapela's findings.

OBJECTIVITY QUESTIONED

For his part, Chapela said he became worried about Rine's objectivity in the tenure decision after Rine co-taught a class on scientific methods and logic, and word filtered back that he had portrayed the Mexican corn case as a "hoax."

"It would mean that he had already made up his mind that I am a fraud and a disgrace to science even before my tenure came up," Chapela said.

Rine, replying in a written statement, said that when the class discussed Chapela's article in one of its 15 meetings, "our bottom line was that the paper was flawed and shouldn't have passed peer review."

Rine added that it was only after teaching the class that he learned in a newspaper article that Chapela was coming up for tenure. "I had not known that,

and frankly never considered that he might be untenured," Rine wrote.

The Chapela affair has put the tenure process under an uncomfortable spotlight. Berkeley officials say the university's process is so democratic that no one professor could nix a case, even if he or she had a mind to.

"This is not like the College of Cardinals going in to the Sistine Chapel and all of a sudden the white smoke comes out," Strait said.

But Malkin, Chapela's chief on-campus ally, said: "It is like the College of Cardinals."

Meanwhile, any debate about a conflict of interest on UC Berkeley's tenure committee must venture into vague territory because the professors who review the applications have never created a written policy, said Robert Holub, the German professor who chairs the panel.

"Cases like this come up so rarely, we would be putting a lot of work into a problem that comes up once a decade," Holub said.

E-mail Tom Abate at tabate@sfchronicle.com.

 
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