Prof Rine's stolen laptop (1/10/2005)

GM Watch readers may remember concern about the role of Jasper Rine - a professor of genetics in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley - in the (later to be overturned) denial of tenure to his Berkeley colleague, Dr Ignacio Chapela.

Prof Rine sat on the 9-man Budget Committee that denied tenure, despite the overwhelming support Chapela had received from his own department and from external assessors. Eventually, following an international outcryand a further review, their decision was overturned.

Earlier this year Prof Rine's laptop was stolen. According to Rine, it was taken by a student who was after exam data. Rine's threat to his class at Berkeley is captured here on video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6219688484727192143

It makes for extremely interesting viewing. The transcript is below.

What's so striking is the way in which Rine uses the importance of his industrial-consulting connections, his "pre-public" company and the like, to intimidate.

One aspect of the furore over the Chapela tenure case were the close ties Rine reportedly had to Novartis and the biotech industry. David Noble of York University in Toronto accused him of "a conflict of interest as naked as it gets." According to Noble, Rine co-founded a biotech company called Acacia Biosciences, which licensed one of Rine's patented biotech inventions to the crop protection division of Novartis.

Ignacio Chapela - the leading critic of Berkeley's multi-million dollar commercial tie-up with Novartis - said he became anxious about Rine's objectivity after Rine co-taught a class on scientific methods and logic in which he portrayed Chapela's research on the GM contamination of Mexican maize as a "hoax".

The transcript of Prof Rine's threats about the laptop provides a suggestive picture of the extraordinarily commercialised world inhabited by some university scientists.

Here's how Rine explains to the hypothetical student-thief what a world of trouble he is in:

"You are in possession of data from a hundred million dollar trial... This involves some of the largest companies on the planet...

"You are in possession of trade secrets from a Fortune 1000 biotech company, the largest one in the country, which I consult for...

"You are in possession of proprietary data..."

Almost entirely absent from Rine's diatribe is any reference to public research or education - the reasons, one might have supposed, for his employment in a public university and for his presence in a Berkeley classroom.

But if Rine's references to "trade secrets", mega-corporations and "proprietary data" fail to suggest a climate of open and independent scientific study, things are little better elsewhere. As Prof Steven Rose of Britain's Open University Biology Dept, points out: "the old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's got contracts and one's got shareholders."

Both the dean of Chapela's college and his department chair requested on four separate occasions that Rine not serve on the Budget Committee reviewing Chapela's tenure; but, according to a report in the journal Nature, "Rine did not excuse himself nor did the committee chair ask him to leave".

Prof Rine, who was on a committee charged with administrative oversight of the controversial Berkeley-Novartis deal, denied that there was any conflict of interest in his involvement in the Chapela tenure decision. However, an investigation by Berkeley's Senate concluded Rine did have conflicts of interest (Review of tenure refusal uncovers conflicts of interest, Nature 430, 598).

And a team of outside scholars asked by Berkeley to evaluate its relationship with Novartis concluded that the deal had created a potential conflict of interest among administrators that had affected the tenure review process.

According to the report, "there is little doubt" that the Berkeley-Novartis relationship was a factor in the tenure decision. Prof Lawrence Busch, who headed the external evaluation, was quoted as saying that the deal "played a very clear role and an unsatisfactory role in the tenure process".


"Thanks Gary. I have a message for one person in this audience - I'm sorry the rest of you have to sit through this. As you know, my computer was stolen in my last lecture. The thief apparently wanted to betray everybody's trust, and was after the exam.

The thief was smart not to plug the computer into the campus network, but the thief was not smart enough to do three things: he was not smart enough to immediately remove Windows. I installed the same version of Windows on another computer -within fifteen minutes the people in Redmond Washington were very interested to know why it was that the same version of Windows was being signalled to them from two different computers.

The thief also did not inactivate either the wireless card or the transponder that's in that computer. Within about an hour, there was a signal from various places on campus that's allowed us to track exactly where that computer went every time that it was turned on.

I'm not particularly concerned about the computer. But the thief, who thought he was only stealing an exam, is presently - we think - is probably still in possession of three kinds of data, any one of which can send this man, this young boy, actually, to federal prison. Not a good place for a young boy to be.

You are in possession of data from a hundred million dollar trial, sponsored by

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