Study Contests Professor's Controversial Paper (11/8/2005)

Despite the headline, and the attempt to pitch the new study against Chapela's original paper, the article's coverage seems otherwise accurate.

Study Contests Professor's Controversial Paper
The Daily Californian, August 11, 2005

[image caption: Ignacio Chapela (center) rallied outside California Hall in December 2004 as part of a high-profile fight to get tenure. A new study challenges the findings of Chapela's controversial 2001 research on genetically modified corn, which he believes hurt his tenure campaign.]

After a nearly two-year battle with UC Berkeley over tenure, assistant professor of microbial biology Ignacio Chapela is again facing scrutiny after a study released Tuesday disputed his research that genetically modified corn had spread to native maize crops in southern Mexico.

The study, headed by Ohio State University professor Allison Snow, is the first follow-up to Chapela’s study. Chapela's paper, which was written with UC Berkeley graduate student David Quist, garnered worldwide attention when it was first published in Nature in 2001 and later withdrawn from the science journal after journal officials said Chapela's evidence was lacking.

Snow and her co-authors examined about 870 plants in Oaxaca in 2003 and 2004, concluding that there was no evidence to support Chapela's 2001 paper, which claimed genetically modified corn had contaminated local varieties of the crop.

"I am quite surprised," Chapela said. "Mostly because the authors who produced the samples for this are people who a year ago were publicly saying there was contamination."

Following the report, the Mexican government investigated the issue and determined that transgenic corn had ruined some original wild crops.

In the study, Snow accepts that genetically modified corn could have made an impact in 2001 but was not present in their later findings, which spanned more than 150,000 seeds from 125 fields in Oaxaca.

"It's very difficult to believe that contamination has disappeared," Chapela said. "Barely two years after we said we found it, they say it's gone. One of those two statements has to be wrong."

Both critics and supporters of Chapela speculated that the highly contentious paper played a major role in the university’s initial refusal to grant him tenure.

"If you look at the report for denying me tenure, it pays so much attention to the paper," Chapela said. "I do think it played an important role."

Chapela fought a high-profile battle against the university for two years. Shortly after being denied tenure in 2003, Chapela began holding his office hours outside California Hall to protest the decision and later picketed in front of the hall with hundreds of supporters in December 2004.

Despite Birgeneau’s promise to review his appeal, Chapela filed a lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents in April 2005 alleging conspiracy and discrimination by university officials against his Mexican heritage.

In May, Chapela received an offer for tenure from the university and salary as if he'd been tenured in 2003.

Chapela does not believe the recent findings from this study will affect his new position at the university.

"I really appreciate the fact that at least somebody thinks something about the issue in Mexico," Chapela said. "The 2001 paper was so noisy, it really made the rounds, but after that nobody touched the question ever again. So any research is very much welcome."


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