Biotech critic denied tenure - Science in Society issue 21 (8/3/2004)

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Biotech critic denied tenure
Science in Society issue 21, spring 2004 www.i-sis.org

Another scientist has fallen victim after publishing findings unfavourable to the biotech industry. Biology is turning into a "mere adjunct of commerce", and universities are partly to blame. Claire Robinson reports

Ignacio Chapela, ecologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been denied tenure. He received notice on 26 November 2003 that his academic contract will expire next June. But some of his colleagues are questioning the integrity of the decision. They believe that Chapela's vocal criticism of the biotech industry may have unfairly influenced the tenure process.

In 1998 Chapela led a fight against a controversial research partnership between the biotech firm Novartis (now Syngenta) and Berkeley, which gave the company privileged access to the university's plant scientists. Novartis agreed to provide up to $25 million over the next five years in return for a role in handing out the money and rights to the research findings. The deal became a symbol of the erosion of academic independence.

In November 2001, Chapela and his graduate student David Quist published research in the journal Nature revealing GM contamination of native Mexican maize. A concerted campaign to discredit their research began almost immediately, simultaneously conducted over the Internet and in scientific journals.

The editor of Nature was eventually moved to state that "the evidence available" was "not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper". The statement was without precedent in the entire history of scientific publishing. It was the more irregular as the major finding of that paper - that GM contamination had occurred - was never in dispute. The technical criticisms were directed at what the data appeared to reveal in addition - that the transgenic constructs were fragmenting and scattering in the maize genome. This finding was vehemently denied by GM proponents, because to admit to such instability of transgenic constructs is to admit a fatal flaw of GM crops in general (see "Unstable transgenic lines illegal", this issue).

Subsequently, the email attacks on Chapela that launched the campaign to discredit him were traced to PR company Bivings, which works for Monsanto, and ultimately to Monsanto itself. [www.gmwatch.org].

In the light of this background, Chapela's allies say Berkeley professor Jasper Rine, who sat on the ninemember tenure review committee, has such close ties to Novartis and the industry that he could not be trusted to give Chapela's case a fair hearing.

"What we're talking about is a conflict of interest as naked as it gets," said David Noble of York University in Toronto. Noble said that Rine co-founded a biotech company called Acacia Biosciences in 1995, which licensed one of Rine's patented biotech inventions to Novartis. Chapela said he became anxious about Rine's objectivity after Rine co-taught a class on scientific methods and logic in which he portrayed the Mexican maize case as a "hoax".

One Berkeley scientist involved in the tenure review, Wayne Getz, was so upset at the handling of the case that he has broken the confidentiality of the process to complain. Getz sat on an ad hoc faculty committee that recommended giving Chapela tenure. He says that the ecologist received overwhelming faculty support, but the review was "hijacked" at a late stage by Chapela's opponents in the university.

The university stands by its decision, claiming that Chapela's publication record is too weak to justify tenure. However, as partial justification for this judgement, it cites the maize paper at the centre of the row – which row, it turned out, was orchestrated by the biotech industry.

Chapela's tenure at Berkeley had been under review since November 2000. In his department, 32 faculty members voted for tenure and one against; and three abstained. In the summer of 2002, an ad hoc committee of five colleagues familiar with Chapela's field voted unanimously in favour of tenure. But the review then took an unusual turn. The university hierarchy quizzed the chair of the ad hoc committee about the committee's report and its membership; questions were raised as to whether two members were biased. The chair, who remains anonymous, then resigned in autumn 2002, disavowing his committee's report. But the committee members weren't told that this had happened.

Getz, a tenured professor in Chapela's department, served on that committee, but only learned what happened to the committee's report in June 2003. He wrote to the chancellor's office: "I am concerned that the process of tenure evaluation, that works so well in almost all cases, has somehow been tainted or corrupted by those on our campus who belong to the camp that believes Chapela should not be tenured."

Chapela has not gone quietly. On 10 December 2003 he hosted a "conversation" at Berkeley between the public and other scientists whose work has been suppressed, called "The Pulse of Scientific Freedom in the Age of the Biotech Industry". The event was webcast around the world and can be viewed at http://webcast.berkeley.edu/events/archive.html.

The scientists who recounted their stories were Ignacio Chapela; Arpad Pusztai, who had his contract terminated and was gagged for work indicating that GM potatoes had adversely affected young rats; Tyrone Hayes, whose study, showing that levels of the herbicide atrazine lower than were permitted in drinking water turned frogs into hermaphrodites, was suppressed by the agrochemical industry; and John Losey, whose study showing that monarch butterfly larvae died after eating GM maize pollen led to biotech industry attempts to discredit his research.

The discussion gave the public unique insights into the sinister workings of the academic-industrial complex. All the scientists except Chapela said that they had gone into their research "naive" about its political and economic implications, and that they were ill-prepared for the furore it unleashed. They discussed how we might rescue biology from its current trajectory, which is turning it into a "mere adjunct of commerce". What we are seeing, said one contributor, is the death of biology.

Chapela said that we cannot simply blame industry; responsibility lies also with the universities, which have passively given up their power and, it was implied, could take it back, given sufficient will. The conversation ended with a standing ovation for the scientist contributors.   

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