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Update: Hopping mad science feud boils down to frog fees

August 20, 2013

Late last week, the news that famous (and in some circles, infamous) Berkeley endocrinology professor Tyrone Hayes had lost his UC lab funding leapt from campus squabble to scandal-dom. The professor accused the school of acting in cahoots with its corporate benefactors. The university, in turn, said Hayes had run out of money to pay his UC lab bills.

We reported on the scintillating details of the dispute last week. Ultimately, however, the disagreement between Hayes and the university now appears to hinge on one significantly less-sexy question: how much does it cost to take care of a frog?

“I’m paying fees 80 times higher than some of my colleagues,” Hayes told us this week. The researcher has been at war with biotech behemoth Syngenta since concluding that its herbicide atrazine caused sex-swapping symptoms in frogs. He has suggested that the university is retaliating against him because of its cozy financial relationship with the Swiss conglomerate Novartis, which once cut a $25 million research deal with UC Berkeley. (In 2000, pharmaceutical companies Novartis and AstraZeneca spun off their agrobusiness to create Syngenta Global; Syngenta is now a separate company.) The university said that its controversial research deal with Novartis ended a decade ago and thus is irrelevant.

To dissect the dispute: Hayes says he pays about 48 cents per day per cage, a toll that adds up to roughly $60,000 per year for the thousands of animals that occupy his lab at any given time, while he has carried on research funded by sources including the National Institutes of Health and the Kapor Center for Social Impact . Meanwhile, he says other members of the faculty are paying a fraction of the lab fee he’s being charged.

“According to their schedule, Harland pays 8 cents. I’ve actually heard he only pays 2.5 cents,” says Hayes, referring to Richard Harland, a Berkeley geneticist and co-chair of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. “[Certain members of the faculty] have cut themselves a great deal, but for me—pardon my language—it’s been f— Tyrone.

Hayes says he has been arguing with the university over lab fees since at least 2004, when the Office of Laboratory Animal Care (OLAC) changed its rate schedule. Only now has that disagreement come to a head.

 “We’re truly dead in the water,” Hayes tells reporters. “The account we use to order supplies has been shut down…..Meanwhile, [the university] has been busy spinning,” says Hayes, referring to a spokesperson for the public affairs office. “And by ‘spinning,’ I mean, lying.”

Asked about that charge of spinning (or, alternately, lying), OLAC director Roger Van Andel responded via email that Hayes is simply “mixing apples and oranges….Dr. Hayes houses his frogs in static tanks that require considerable labor to maintain. There is an entirely different system with much smaller cages and flow-through filters (i.e. not static tanks) that require much less labor than the static tanks. This is the system Dr. Hayes says is 21 times cheaper than his cages.”

Specifically, according to Andel, the 8 cent per day rate that Harland pays is for a medium sized flow-through aquatic habitat. The orange to Hayes’ apple.

OLAC’s published rate schedule indicates that the 48.2 cent per diem that Hayes pays for his static, small tank is the reduced “PI-labor rate,” which is applied only if the researcher (or “principal investigator”) takes responsibility for the maintenance of the cage and the care of the animals. For the standard rate—which incorporates the cost of providing resident frogs with room-and-board—OLAC charges a much higher daily fee of over 81 cents per day.

“So Dr. Hayes’ contention that he should be charged less is one the campus agrees with—and has instituted for years,” writes Van Andel. “He is charged half what his colleagues are charged for the same tank system.”

And that lower rate, according to at least one email exchange forwarded to California by university public affairs director Dan Mogulof, is no easy thing to secure. In a back-and-forth between David Raulet, a professor of immunology and co-chair of the Molecular and Cell Biology department, and Robert Price, associate vice chancellor for research, Raulet writes that “PI-labor rates are not and [over the last 12 years] were not routinely granted.” In that period of time, he continues, “there were only two or so scenarios that were ever granted PI labor status (sic), to my knowledge.”

In other words, according to the university’s logic, if Hayes’ lab charges stand out at all, it’s only because they’re so exceptionally low.

As for the suddenness with which Hayes was charged? Price asked staff financial services manager Linda Moran to review Hayes’ most recent fund reports. In an email exchange, also forwarded to California by Mogulof, Moran concluded that “OLAC charges are being billed in an appropriate time relative to service” and seem to have popped up suddenly only because in past months, the month-to-month deficits have been met by shifting cash from Hayes’ other funds.

Hayes disputes all of this—so much so that he has secured the services of St. Louis-based attorney Steve Tillery, who secured a $105 million settlement last fall against Syngenta, the makers of atrazine. Hayes says it’s too early to say how he will be making use of Tillery.

Suffice it to say this story has legs.

—Ben Christopher

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