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