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Hopping Mad: Frog researcher who galls industry loses UC lab funds

August 16, 2013

A lone wolf academic calls into question the safety of an herbicide being peddled by a Big Ag-embedded conglomerate. But alas, said conglomerate has donated a fat chunk of change to the university where the academic is employed and, before you can say “quid pro quo,” the maverick scientist is out of funding.

That, of course, is one side of the story breaking this week about Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes. As first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hayes—well known for his research into the alleged sex-swapping effects that the weed-killing chemical atrazine has on male frogs—has lost his laboratory financing. Hayes, an endocrinology professor who has developed a reputation as an academic provocatuer, has suggested that atrazine’s producer, Syngenta, may be involved. “Mr. Hayes says he believes some Berkeley officials, including Graham R. Fleming, vice chancellor for research, may have joined in efforts to penalize him out of a desire to protect a $25-million, five-year research agreement between Berkeley and Novartis, a parent company of Syngenta.”

Close watchers of campus politics might recall that agreement. In 1999, the university’s plant and microbial biology department struck an unprecedented deal with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. In exchange for $5 million in research funding every year for five years, the Big Pharma giant got first dibs on department findings and put its own employees to work beside public university researchers. The deal was wildly controversial at the time and, once it expired, was judged by an independent Michigan State University assessment to be “outside the mainstream” and, “[w]hile an intriguing experiment,” one for which “there appears little rationale for repeating.”

But that ill-considered arrangement ended in 2003. Disappointed with its own return on investment, Novartis has not recommitted.

“Why we would be attempting to protect a relationship that ended 10 years ago is beyond me,” says Fleming.

“Dr. Hayes had trouble attracting enough funding,” says Dan Mogulof, executive director of strategic communications for the university. “In the meantime, he has thousands of specimens in his lab that he has been charged for. And he just hasn’t paid his bills. That’s it.” In a follow-up email about Novartis/Syngenta, he adds, “I can state categorically that there is no institutional relationship between the company and UC Berkeley.” As for individual grants, he says the Office of the Vice Chancellor does not keep track of such financial arrangements and therefore has no knowledge of any conflicting interest. “Bottom line: The very same people who are alleged to be protecting a relationship with Novartis aren’t aware of any relationships individual faculty may have with the company.”

In other words, you can’t have a conflict of interest if you don’t know your own interest.

Hayes himself isn’t so sure about that. While he agrees that he did indeed run out of funding, he contends that’s because the university has been consistently overcharging him. (Mogulof denies this).

“I’m not saying someone from Novartis called up the vice chancellor’s office and told them to ‘cut him off’,” Hayes told us. “But I think because of my ongoing dispute with Syngenta and because there’s a strong relationship between Novartis and the university, I’ve lost my funding….Then again, nothing would surprise me when you’re talking about these people.”

The war between Hayes and Syngenta is well-chronicled—largely for its exceptional oddness. Since publishing his findings on the “feminizing” effect that atrazine has on male frogs in the journal Nature in 2002, Hayes has accused the chemical’s manufacturer of harassment, stalking, and threatening his wife. Meanwhile, Syngenta published 102 pages of poetry-laced emails sent to them by Hayes in which the biology professor quotes everyone from Tupac to Genghis Khan to Machiavelli, lectures two Syngenta employees on the finer points of “thuglife,” and at one point invites them to “please feel free to call me ‘papa.’ ”

“One of the weirdest feuds in the history of science,” is how Dashka Slater characterized it in her 2012 profile in Mother Jones magazine.

Regardless of whether Hayes is being overcharged for amphibian upkeep or not, for many who see Hayes as a frog-dissecting David against a Monsanto-sized Giant of Big Bad Chem, the dots have already connected themselves.

“Prof @TyroneHayesFrog speaks out vs.#atrazine health risks, loses $5 m. grant. Coincidink?” tweeted Rachel L. Sarnoff, former CEO of the environmental non-profit, Healthy Child Healthy World.

Surely not, responds the British environmental activist and author Pat Thomas: “Support prof #tyronehayes – lost funding 4 calling out Syngenta’s toxic herbicide.”

Snarky tweets may not account for much more than perception. But perception can be very important, says Todd LaPorte, former ​chairman of Cal’s Academic Senate’s research committee.

“We have to ask the question: what is it that we are pursuing as a university?” says LaPorte, professor emeritus of political science. Over the last twenty years, as federal funding has stagnated and state funding has collapsed, a growing dependence on industry investments threatens to shift the way faculty, students, and the public view the university—from an institution that serves the public good to one that operates on a transactional basis.

“I see money from the outside as a way of getting our attention,” says LaPorte. “Management needs to be aware of the balance between public and private attention-getting resources. Not just from one faculty member to the next, but on an institutional level, are we biasing the distribution of our efforts towards those aims that serve private interests? Or do we have another—and I would say, a predominant—interest in looking in the public interest?”

Vice Chancellor Fleming, on the other hand, maintains that these kinds of concerns are overblown. Industry provides roughly 10 percent of all Berkeley research funding—“not huge,” he says. And in any event, he adds, there are safeguards against conflicts of interest.

Referring to the largest corporate investment, the Energy Biosciences Institute—a biofuel partnership propped up by $500 million in BP (formerly British Petroleum) cash—Fleming says the oil giant stands at arms length from all decision-making processes.

“BP has no line item veto power,” says Fleming. “They can decide that they don’t want to focus on certain areas of research, but they can’t just say ‘we don’t like this professor or we don’t like this research project.’ ” As for Hayes? “We have taken absolutely no action whatsoever with respect to his fund,” Fleming says.

But critics charge that the interests of funders has a way of creeping into the academic process.

“Even if the overall percentage is relatively small, there’s an institutional concern if there’s a concentration of industry funds within a single department or unit,” LaPorte says. “And if future funding is a concern, what degree do you not publish something that is antagonistic to your funders? Self-censorship and other indirect changes in faculty behavior are harder to measure, but I’ve seen instances of it.”

LaPorte says he recalls one faculty member at another UC campus who, after securing an industry-funded research grant, began teaching two sets of curricula: one for the students who were helping him on the project, and another to those who weren’t. Apparently this was intended both to protect the progress of his classified research and to make sure the students assigned to his project were spending as much time as possible on it. He says the professor ultimately was asked to step down.

“That might have been unusual, but any instance of that kind of behavior is an abrogation of the system’s academic responsibilities,” says LaPorte. “And you begin to question whether private interests will intrude on a much wider range of things—on the culture itself—than the relatively narrow amount of funding might suggest that it would.”

—Ben Christopher



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