Research Alliance Debated
By Peter Rosset and Monica Moore
The proposed $50 million "strategic alliance" between biotech
giant Novartis and U.C. Berkeley's College of Natural Resources raises
questions that demand public scrutiny.
The University is a public institution mandated to serve the
people of California. Its core funding is appropriated by the state
legislature, and its governing body, the Regents, is appointed by the
Governor, California's highest elected official. Yet for a one-time
investment, the College of Natural Resources would be 'joined at the hip'
to one of the world's largest biotechnology and agrochemical companies,
allowing public goods to be appropriated for private profit. Under this
partnership Novartis employees would sit on internal College committees,
and Novartis would receive first negotiating rights to patentable
Public ownership, funding and oversight of University affairs
require transparent management. Yet this deal was negotiated in secrecy.
Critical information has been withheld from faculty, students and the
public regarding the terms. Anticipating "significant press interest in
the proposed strategic alliance," the Dean's office sent a memo to the
College's faculty warning against "fielding calls yourself" and
instructing them to refer inquiries to a designated public relations
contact. Faculty opposition has been squelched by this gag order.
Effective regulation of biotechnology in the coming century will
require disinterested science. This agreement would disqualify a leading
intellectual center from the ranks of institutions able to provide
research free from vested interest. Nor can we ignore the implications
for academic freedom in a College beholden to corporate interests. Will
professors be encouraged to conduct research on impacts of Novartis
According to its publicity, the College of Natural Resources is
committed to sustainability, the environment and food safety. Public
research institutions should provide exactly that kind of "public good"
research, which the private sector cannot be expected to fund. For
agriculture, the public reasonably expects this to mean investigation into
areas such as sustainable agriculture and biological pest control. Yet these
are precisely the areas where funding has been slashed in recent years as
University resources have followed the money toward proprietary
biotechnologies which pose risks to the environment and food safety.
The proposed alliance would further tip the scale in favor of private
Profits over public good research. This is a business deal, not a normal
corporate gift, endowment or research grant -- a fact underscored in a
September memo from Dean Gordon Rausser, describing his approach as
"selecting a single industrial partner for a strategic alliance," and using
"economic models to encourage competitive bidding among the partnership
candidates." Other biotech giants made offers that were turned down, and
the College was auctioned off to Novartis.
Sadly, the same College rushing headlong into this questionable
private sector partnership has turned down proposed partnerships with
community organizations. The Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture
(BACUA), a consortium of 40 local community groups and non-profits, has
been rebuffed in its attempt to create a partnership to provide research,
education, training and extension to California's burgeoning numbers of
urban farmers. As a land grant institution, U.C. Berkeley was established
to provide California farmers with research and extension. As an
educational innovator in a major metropolitan area, U.C. Berkeley is
uniquely positioned to provide and share leadership in urban agriculture
with these farmers and the community organizations that support them.
Isn't this a better -- not to mention more strategic -- way to invest
taxpayer dollars in education and research in the public interest?
We urge the Academic Senate, Student Government, the Regents and
the California Legislature to immediately initiate public hearings
concerning the implications of this proposed partnership. In the
meantime, the Chancellor of the University must block the deal unless such
informed public scrutiny finds it worthy of going forward. We urge
concerned readers to write to this newspaper, the Chancellor and your
legislators to ensure the UCB/Novartis deal is put on hold until open
public hearings have resolved these and other serious issues related to
the proposed deal.
Dr. Peter Rosset is Director of Food First/The Institute for Food &
Development Policy in Oakland, and Monica Moore is Program Director of the
Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco.
Please write the UC Berkeley Chancellor, the SF Chronicle, and/or your
state legislators opposing the UCB/Novartis "Strategic Alliance" and other
corporate alliances. Points that you can use in your letter include:
- UC Berkeley belongs to the people of California and it is not the place
of UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources or anyone else to sell it and
its research capacity off to the highest commercial bidder.
- The public funds the UC system to provide "public goods" research, like
sustainable agriculture and ecological pest control. This deal will divert
the UC research agenda toward product that have negative environmental,
economic, health and human rights impacts. Can we expect Novartis-one of
the world's largest biotech / agrochemical corporations-to support research
that does not promote its bottom line, that does not promote biotech and
- This is not a "strategic alliance," but a corporate takeover of public
education. Novartis would gain exclusive rights to negotiate patents, and
the power to influence what research done at UC Berkeley. This deal allows
a major public university to be appropriated for private profit.
- Chancellor Robert Berdahl
Office of the Chancellor
200 California Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-1500
- Letters to the Editors
San Francisco Chronicle
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San Francisco, CA 94103
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QUESTIONS/COMMENTS -- Call CPR at (415)981-3939.
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