Controlling the Research Agenda
IMMEDIATELY after the April faculty meeting at Berkeley several members of Students for Responsible Research gathered in an outdoor courtyard at La Burrita, a pub just off campus, to air their concerns about the Novartis deal—and to let off steam. "This place has some of the cheapest pitchers around," said Jesse Reynolds, one of the group's leaders, as glasses were poured and beers were passed around a long picnic table.
Unlike the student radicals of the sixties, these students never intended to lock horns with the university establishment. Reynolds, who studies California water resources, says he's relatively new to student politics—and to politics altogether. "I'm generally one of those people who gripe a lot and do nothing," he explained. "But when the best state agricultural college in the country makes this kind of leap, the world is bound to follow. I really fear that."
David Quist, a second-year graduate student in environmental science, laughed as he told a story illustrating the culture that now permeates the university. The previous October, Quist said, at a town-hall meeting where the Novartis deal was first made public, Dean Gordon Rausser invited concerned students to examine the contract for themselves. "So the next day I came to his office," Quist recalled. "I was given some materials and sat down to take notes. But as soon as an administrator saw me, she said, 'Oh, no, you can't do that.'" Quist's notes were confiscated and held at the dean's office for several months.
Wilhelm Gruissem, a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology who helped to negotiate the Novartis deal, insists that the negotiations were as open as possible without divulging the company's proprietary secrets. But even students within the department felt shut out. In December of 1998 twenty-three graduate students sent a letter to the faculty complaining that their views had never been solicited and that they had been "forced to rely on rumors and supposition throughout the negotiation process."
What most concerns the Students for Responsible Research is that as university-industry ties grow more intimate, less commercially oriented areas of science will languish. "Let's say you're a graduate student interested in sustainable agriculture or biological control or some other area that is not commercial," Reynolds explained. "My guess is you're not going to come to Berkeley, or you'll at least think twice about it."
Donald Dahlsten, the associate dean of the College of Natural Resources, shares this concern. "Molecular biology and genetic engineering have clearly risen as the preferred approach to solving our problems, and that's where the resources are going," Dahlsten says. "New buildings have gone up, and these departments are expanding, while the organismic areas of science—which emphasize a more ecological approach—are being downsized." Dahlsten once chaired Berkeley's world-renowned Division of Biological Control. Today that division, along with the Department of Plant Pathology and more than half of all faculty positions in entomology, are gone—in part, many professors believe, because there are no profits in such work. "You can't patent the natural organisms and ecological understanding used in biological control," Andy Gutierrez, a Berkeley entomologist, explains. "However, if you look at public benefit, that division provided billions of dollars annually to the state of California and the world." In one project Gutierrez worked on, he helped to halt the spread of a pest that threatened to destroy the cassava crop, a food staple for 200 million people in West Africa.