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Novartis agreement became "lightning rod" for debate on future direction of public universities, finds external review

– A new external review of a much-debated $25 million research-support contract between the University of California, Berkeley, and agricultural biotechnology company Syngenta, formerly Novartis, finds that the worst fears - and the best hopes - surrounding the agreement failed to materialize.

The deal, announced in 1998, authorized a five-year collaboration between the campus's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) and what was then the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute (NADI), a research arm of parent company Novartis.

The unprecedented agreement immediately sparked intense debate over whether the agreement would unduly influence the direction of faculty research and restrict academic freedom.

At the time the controversial research-support agreement was signed, Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl said the deal itself would be viewed as an experiment that would be carefully reviewed and scrutinized.

The campus administration authorized an internal review, undertaken to answer questions raised by UC Berkeley's Academic Senate and others. The review by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, released in January 2003, reported a generally positive outcome of the agreement.

By November 2000, the campus had established a committee to recruit and select the researchers for an external study. The campus contracted with a sociologist from Michigan State University to complete the external review of the contract's effect on UC Berkeley's graduate students and on academic freedom.

"It became apparent to us that a lot of the concerns were 'what ifs,' and most of these things couldn't be answered ahead of time," said Robert Spear, who was vice chair of the Divisional Council of the Academic Senate at the time the agreement was signed. Spear was one of the Academic Senate members who helped push for an independent evaluation when the agreement was signed.

The $225,000 Michigan State report, to be released on Sunday, Aug. 1, found that "the agreement has not produced the major changes that many feared it would," with no PMB faculty grant proposal rejected and no evident pressure to conduct research in areas of commercial interest to Syngenta.

Rather, the report found that PMB researchers credited increased funds, as well as access to state-of-the-art equipment and proprietary information, with allowing them "to explore research questions that they otherwise would have foregone or postponed until they had more initial results to support a government grant proposal."

During the course of the contract, Syngenta provided 27 percent, on average, of the total research funding for the PMB department, according to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

At the same time, the report found that the agreement failed to generate anticipated benefits in the form of patent rights and royalties from discoveries made during the contract period. Of the 20 discoveries patented during the contract period, Syngenta chose to pursue only three options, none of which remains active today.

Beyond the quantifiable outcomes of the agreement, the report emphasized the need for greater transparency in the university's dealings with private industry, noting that many of the objections to the agreement focused on the lack of input early in the negotiations.

"Industry is not anxious to conduct contract negotiations in public," said Spear. "But we clearly need to learn to tread the difficult path of acknowledging their reasonable needs for confidentiality and, at the same time, meet our obligations as a public institution."

C. Judson King, director of UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, the campus's administrative base for the external review, said the report highlights the need to carefully evaluate how industrially funded projects fit the role of the research university.

"Since Berkeley was the first university campus to go into an agreement involving an entire department, we couldn't foretell everything that might happen," said King, who was UC provost at the time the Novartis deal was signed. "But it's been a good opportunity to learn, and this report has been very helpful with that."

The relationship with industry points to one of the most enduring legacies of the Novartis pact. According to the report, the deal effectively brought to the surface a long simmering debate about the core mission of public universities and the role private industry should play in academia.

"The agreement became a lightning rod for issues that have been affecting Berkeley and universities across the country in the last 20 years," said Lawrence Busch, professor of sociology at Michigan State University and the study's principal investigator.

Busch points to the financial pressures public universities face as a dominating factor for the deal with Syngenta. "There's been a mission creep that has occurred among public universities as they see all kinds of funds declining," he said. "State funding is erratic, especially in California, and administrators are finding themselves faced with one fiscal crisis after another."

As a result, research institutions have increasingly turned to private industry for alternative sources of funding, he said.

The changes in funding sources reflect a larger identity crisis in public higher education, according to the report. The report's authors note the overlapping yet distinct roles served by universities: an "engine of growth," a "source of societal betterment" and a "generator of new knowledge."

The report's authors argue that the "engine of growth" model currently prevails, pointing to the positive impact the state's education system has had on the economy and the significant percentage of startups formed by UC Berkeley faculty.

How well that growth model co-exists with UC Berkeley's founding land grant mission, which combines applied research with public service and education, needs to be examined, according to the report.

"While there are certain factual errors in the report that need to be corrected and explained at a future time, the paper correctly raises the question of the role of public universities in today's society," said Anne MacLachlan, senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education and UC Berkeley's point person for the external review.

"Universities are being treated more and more like a business, a trend that is not only affecting faculty through the types of grants they receive, but by the way students are seen as clients," said MacLachlan. "The larger world of public universities can learn a lot from the experience at UC Berkeley."

Indeed, one of the goals of the external review is to provide a case study from which other public universities can learn.

"There's no doubt in my mind that everyone involved in the Novartis deal acted in good faith, but they all had different views of what a university should be," said Busch at Michigan State. "The same issues are being discussed on my campus, and by colleagues at other institutions across the country. As the preeminent public land grant university in the country, Berkeley is particularly well-suited to lead the debate."

NOTE: The report, External Review of the Collaborative Research Agreement between Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc. and The Regents of the University of California, is online (1,367K PDF file). Three bound copies of the external report by Michigan State University also will be available to the public through the UC Berkeley Marian Koshland Bioscience & Natural Resources Library.

The UC Berkeley internal review, The Novartis Agreement: An Appraisal, Administrative Review, October 4, 2002, is also online (863K PDF file) as is a Berkeleyan story reporting on the review.

The complete agreement between UC Berkeley and Novartis, Collaborative Research Agreement between Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, Inc. ("NADII") and The Regents of the University of California, is online (3657K PDF file), except for Appendix H, which contains confidential company information. The report is no longer "proprietary and confidential," despite the footers.