ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
27 October 2002

UNIVERSITIES SHOULD BE BIASED IN FAVOUR OF AGBIOTECH

That well known GM enthusiast and investor - not to mention UK science minister - Lord Sainsbury, recently spoke of the "stunning change in the entrepreneurial attitudes of our universities", boasting, "The UK  ratio of companies to research spending is more than six times higher than in the US. It's a dazzling record..."
http://ngin.tripod.com/231002e.htm

Some of the questions begged by such apparent naivety can be sensed in the articles below, published in the US and Canada within the last few days.

EXCERPTS:

"The University of Guelph, its faculty, staff, students, and most importantly its administrators -- the ones letting corporations run rampant on campus -- must seriously begin to look at how industry money is being spent at the institution... Corporate research funding is threatening the public nature of academic research..." (item 2)

"Pioneer Hi-Bred Limited, along with Ontario Pork, the university's second highest industry funder, will each give Guelph $100,000 to start a programme teaching students 'how to communicate about the agri-food industry in an informed, balanced way.' " (item 1)

"...administrators, it seems, are all too willing to accept the money of industry, even if it means their students will work alongside agricultural companies to learn how to ply the trade of fair and balanced journalism." (item 2)

"In 1996, Nancy Olivieri, working with the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, spoke out about the side effects of a new drug she was testing for pharmaceutical giant Apotex. The drug, meant to treat children with a rare blood disorder, was actually harming patients, Olivieri found. When she spoke out, she was fired..." (item 2)

"It can fairly be asked... whether... universities involved in agricultural biotechnology, can be truly open minded about this technology when we stake so much of our research portfolio on its success... Yes, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this column, universities should have a bias [in favour of] agricultural biotechnology." (item 3 - UNIVERSITIES SHOULD HAVE A BIAS... REGARDING AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY)

"they're only going to fund the interests of their stockholders... you're going to serve only private interests. It's turning research faculty into servants of private corporate interests. You become a market speculator in your research. The objective of universities is to advance learning and disseminate knowledge. Our priority, our steering mechanism has become what interests private corporations and transnationals." - John McMurtry, a philosophy professor (item 1)

for more on these issues:
http://ngin.tripod.com/pblinks.htm

all items via Agnet:
1. FUNDING FROM INDUSTRY CAUSES RIFT AMONG RESEARCHERS
2. FUNDING: A MATTER OF INTEGRITY
3. UNIVERSITIES SHOULD HAVE A BIAS REGARDING AGBIOTECH

***

1. FUNDING FROM INDUSTRY CAUSES RIFT AMONG RESEARCHERS

Guelph Mercury, October 26, 2002
Kerry  Thompson

Ken Kasha's experimental wheat has Monsanto, according to this story, banking on fields of golden grain.

The story says that the international conglomerate, often criticized for its handling of genetically modified canola on the Prairies, wants a piece of Kasha's new wheat, and doesn't mind coming to the University of Guelph to pay for the rights to licence the grain.

Kasha, a plant agriculture researcher, is developing new wheat varieties, although not genetically modified, and Monsanto Canada has offered up hundreds of thousands of dollars to help.

Without that money, Kasha was cited as saying, he would not be able to complete his work in as timely a manner.

But with the money comes the argument over the commercialization of research, with Guelph researchers sharing in $16.4-million last year from business and industry sources.

The story says that the situation is causing a rift at the university among professors who feel industry funding is valuable in light of less public funding, and those who feel private money debases the very notion of public education.

Kasha, who received more than $300,000 in contract funding from Monsanto Canada last year, was quoted as saying, "It coincides with what I'm interested in doing. It's very important to research at this stage to have industry funding. It's allowing a lot more research to be done in Canada."

Kasha routinely sends his research findings to the company. And while patents and research belong to the university, Monsanto has first right to licence the product, because it's paying for the work.

Ann Clark, an outspoken opponent of proprietary research funding on campus, was quoted as saying, "I think we've become imbalanced and I think the repercussions are going to be severe. There's no effort I can see to distance us from this."

"The problem is government funding is declining, and what is left you have to access with matching funds," said Clark, a plant agriculture professor.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers based in Ottawa, was cited as saying that marketable research is being funded at a disproportionate level, adding, "In principle, private funding of research is not a problem. But with the increased competition and globalization, there's an increased emphasis on the short-term bottom line.

There's less initiative for companies to get into long-term, basic research."

Jennifer Sumner, a post-doctoral fellow in the university's rural studies department, was cited as saying the notion of what is public and what is private is blurred when corporate money is involved, adding, "My view is that the private sector has no place in universities. What comes up with the privatization of knowledge, is what knowledge is important and what is unimportant."

Alan Wildeman, vice-president of research at Guelph, was cited as saying that academic freedom is a priority at the university, no matter who funds the research, adding, "We have to maintain transparency in what we do."

The story says that a recent donation of $2.3 million at the University of Waterloo sparked controversy over the structuring of curriculum to use a computer programming language by Microsoft, the funding partner (which has since been retracted), but a recent funding announcement for a new programme at Guelph does not work on the same principles, said Wildeman.

Pioneer Hi-Bred Limited, along with Ontario Pork, the university's second highest industry funder, will each give Guelph $100,000 to start a programme teaching students "how to communicate about the agri-food industry in an informed, balanced way."

Wildeman was quoted as saying, "In this case, with the money, there's no expectation we're going to be using resources of Pioneer or Ontario Pork to teach. The investment they've made, to see the university move forward, is something they see as important."

Art Stirling, government and industry affairs manager at Pioneer, was cited as saying  industry funding was instrumental in getting the programme off the ground, adding, "Industry has become a significant revenue stream for research funding at universities", he said adding Pioneer's connection to Guelph, including some research projects, "is very much arm's- length."

Mark Hurtig, a professor in the Ontario Veterinary College, received more than $250,000 over the last year from Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly, one of the university's top 10 industry partners.

His work centres around canine arthritis drugs. Hurtig was quoted as saying, "I have a personal policy that I hardly never take a contract that will not let me publish." The industry backer, he said, can "see my results and comment on it, but I'm still going to publish it."

John McMurtry, a philosophy professor at the university, was cited as saying industry funding of research will lead to a decline in knowledge that is disseminated, adding,"With a corporation, they're only going to fund the interests of their stockholders. Instead of it going to the public interest research, you're going to serve only private interests. It's turning research faculty into servants of private corporate interests. You become a market speculator in your research. The objective of universities is to advance learning and disseminate knowledge. Our priority, our steering mechanism has become what interests private corporations and transnationals."

TOP TEN SPONSORS
External research funding to the University of Guelph from private business, May 1, 2001, to April 30, 2002.
1)Centre for Research in Earth & Space Technology - $1,018,034.
2)Ontario Pork - $900,415.
3)Generex Biotechnology Corporation - $654,394.
4)Gensel Biotechnologies Inc. - $614,474.
5)Dairy Farmers of Ontario - $582,582.
6)Ontario Corn Producers Association - $528,457.
7)Ontario Soybean Growers - $507,300
8)Ontario Cattlemen's Association - $475,595
9)Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board - $405,269.
10)Elanco, Division Eli Lilly Canada Inc. - $344,137

***

2. FUNDING: A MATTER OF INTEGRITY

Guelph Mercury, October 26, 2002

According to this editorial, the word public, as defined in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, means "of or concerning the people as a whole (in the public interest)".

The university then, a public institution in Canada for nearly two centuries, is rightly open to people, is there for the people, and the work done within its halls is communicated to the people. The line, however is being blurred at universities across the country, including the University of Guelph, where funding for public research is increasingly coming from the corporate sector.

The editorial says that industry and business funding over the past decade has risen from $4.6 million in 1990, to $16.4 million this year. The increase can be attributed to a number of things: the ongoing commercialization of research relegated by the global knowledge economy, government funding cuts and the realization by companies that they can raise profits and shareholder interest when new products come out of the research they fund.

The University of Guelph, with $100 million in annual research funding, is considered one of the top research intensive universities in Canada. That reputation, however, owes much to industry representatives who contact faculty with projects that will enhance their bottom line when the research is complete. This research is consuming faculty in projects that have commercial value, but detract from the efforts of researchers to maintain their control over basic, discovery-oriented research.

The editorial says that research done in the public sphere is meant to benefit citizens, and while products such as drugs that come out of corporate-funded research may help citizens, there is worry over how much academic freedom those researchers have. While university policy dictates that academic freedom be held in the highest regard, and no contracts infringe on this policy, cases at other universities show how contentious the issue can become.

In 1996, Nancy Olivieri, working with the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, spoke out about the side effects of a new drug she was testing for pharmaceutical giant Apotex. The drug, meant to treat children with a rare blood disorder, was actually harming patients, Olivieri found. When she spoke out, she was fired from the Hospital for Sick Children for violating a confidentiality clause in her contract, but was eventually reinstated.

The University of Waterloo, after recently accepting a donation of $2.3 million from Microsoft Canada, was thrown into the spotlight when it was revealed the donation was tied to curriculum changes. Those changes meant the introduction of an on-line course utilizing Microsoft's new C# programming language became mandatory for 300 students. The deal has since been retracted and is under review, but the incident shows how university administrators allow corporate interests to infiltrate the public education system.

The University of Guelph, almost too willingly, opens its doors to biotechnology companies who can easily utilize the research capabilities of staff at the school. They even build them homes, in the form of the Research Park off Stone Road, so they can be close to faculty at the university, who will perform research with industry dollars.

Earlier this week, the university was the launching pad for the new MaRS LANDING project, a $2.9 million investment by the provincial government, to "ensure the life sciences sector in rural and small town Ontario has the tools and resources needed to develop research into commercial products."

The plan is to help forge partnerships between businesses and academics, with the ultimate goal of commercializing academic research. Earlier this month, the University of Guelph announced a new programme in agricultural communication, which will turn out agricultural journalists and communications specialists. The programme will be the only one of its kind at a Canadian university, and will combine classes in both technical journalism and agricultural economics, environment and statistics. It will also initiate the creation of a professional development centre. It is, however, funded by $200,000 from Pioneer Hi-Bred Ltd. and Ontario Pork, two industry partners who also fund research at the university. This blurs the line between school and corporation. A Pioneer representative said this week that administrators at the university were more interested in the idea once industry money was available to get it off the ground. Those administrators, it seems, are all too willing to accept the money of industry, even if it means their students will work alongside agricultural companies to learn how to ply the trade of fair and balanced journalism.

The University of Guelph, its faculty, staff, students, and most importantly its administrators -- the ones letting corporations run rampant on campus -- must seriously begin to look at how industry money is being spent at the institution. There has been much talk across the province about opening private universities, but there may soon be no need if public universities continue to imbibe private funds that underscore the principles on which higher education was built.

Corporate research funding is threatening the public nature of academic research, and must be curtailed before it moves any further into the classroom.

***

3. UNIVERSITIES SHOULD HAVE A BIAS ..... REGARDING AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY

October 25, 2002
National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, NABC News, Fall 2002 no. 25
Neal K. Van Alfen NABC Chair, 2002Ð2003
http://www.cals.cornell.edu/extension/nabc

Prominent on the masthead of this newsletter is the declaration that the NABC exists to provide "an open forum for exploring issues in agricultural biotechnology." It can fairly be asked, however, whether we, the members of NABC, primarily universities involved in agricultural biotechnology, can be truly open minded about this technology when we stake so much of our research portfolio on its success. One could argue that we have a bias in the outcome of the discussion.

Thus, it is important to clarify the role of universities with agricultural programs and that of the NABC in the debate over public health safety and environmental safety of agricultural biotechnology. In many ways we are similar to private companies in that we protect our intellectual property, license this property to private companies for money, and at times seek to develop our intellectual property into exclusive products.

With declining public funds available to support our research programs, most of us dream of products that will return to our budgets more than their research and development costs. In light of this, what distinguishes us from for-profit companies? The primary distinction is our purpose: we exist to educate, to serve the public and to advance knowledge. The protection and use of intellectual property that comes from our research is merely a sideline issue and should not drive our resource allocation decisions, unlike private companies that prosper or fail from the new knowledge that we generate from our research.

Probably the clearest example of how universities differ from private companies is the, at times vilifying, public debates among faculty members of our universities over research claims and speculations. Such public debate by employees of the same company would not be tolerated, but it is one of the most cherished rights of university faculty. Recently, a high-profile example of such a public debate by members of the same college occurred over published claims that pollen drift from putative unlawfully cultivated transgenic maize resulted in genetic contamination of locally grown maize cultivars in Mexico. Claims, and counter claims, of bias were prominent in the debate.

Yes, we are biased, but, as a community of scholars, we represent a wide range of biases on any subject. The seeming inability of universities to speak with a single voice at times frustrates our supporters and limits our role in most public debates. Just as we are biased toward agricultural biotechnology because of our investment in related research, we can as easily be accused of bias against agricultural biotechnology because of our research in support of organic agriculture, which excludes the use of agricultural biotechnology. Our research interests are so divergent, including production agriculture, organic farming, rural social issues, and environmental issues, that no single vision or voice can dominate our discussions.

I personally feel, however, that universities need to take a position regarding one aspect of the debate about agricultural biotechnology. Because we are education and research institutions we have a strong bias toward pushing back the current boundaries of knowledge with the resultant development and adoption of new technology. Results from our medical and engineering research and development programs are aggressively changing how we live. We actively seek to change nature; we long ago rejected the notion that infectious and congenital diseases of humans must be tolerated, and we use our technological capabilities to greatly change the natural mobility, communication ability, and living space of humans. It is unnatural for humans to fly, yet air travel has become integral to modern society.

Modern transportation brings with it enormous personal risk, social change, and a degradation of environmental quality, but few support a return to transportation based only on our legs.

Likewise, we must encourage the use of the best technology available to meet the challenges of a continually increasing human population that needs to extract food, fiber, shelter, transportation, recreation, and spiritual renewal from the finite resources provided by our planet.  Technology plays an important role in protecting our environment while also assuring that the needs of an increasing global population are being met.

Agricultural biotechnology offers considerable promise in meeting these goals, and so the debate about this technology needs to shift from one about its intrinsic value to one of risk assessment of its individual products.

Yes, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this column, universities should have a bias in this open forum regarding agricultural biotechnology. We exist to educate and to help society explore the unknown.

The question of whether we should use technology to change old ways of doing things, in general, was answered centuries ago.
 


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