ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

28 January 2002


see also 'The Kept University' by Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn in Volume 285, No. 3 of The Atlantic Monthly, pages 39-54.


Universities For Sale?
Progressive Farmer
November 2001

A lack of government funds for ag research has led land-grants to make deals with private companies. Is the public research system compromised?

By Jim Patrico

You might as well hang a "For Sale" sign on the front doors of land-grant universities. So say critics who charge that in a rush for research dollars, public institutions are making too many deals with agribusinesses. The results, these critics say, are that professors have become profit centers, companies often are setting the research agendas for universities, and supposedly unbiased research is bought and paid for by the companies that sponsor it.

"At land-grant universities today, the guy who puts up the loot is the guy who benefits . . . and that's not always farmers and ranchers," says Fred Stokes, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, an advocacy group for family farms.

Stokes and others say that land-grants take too much research money from chemical, pharmaceutical and seed companies. Sponsors then use the research to develop expensive private-label products, which farmers feel compelled to buy to remain competitive.

"I believe this violates the mission of our land-grant institutions, promotes concentration of agriculture and contributes to the demise of the family farm," says Stokes.

That is quite a load to lay on the academic world. After all, public colleges and private industry have long been research and funding partners. And those partnerships have led to many of the advances that fueled the Green Revolution and shaped the way we farm.

But that relationship has gotten out of whack in recent years, critics say. They cite this evidence:

In 1998, the University of California-Berkeley signed an agreement with Novartis that gave the university access to some of the company's proprietary technology. Novartis also gave $25 million over five years for research in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. In return, the company will receive first rights to license up to 33% of the patents that result from work using those funds. The deal also grants Novartis (now Syngenta) two of five seats on the department's research committee, which determines how the $25 million is spent.

The deal didn't sit well with some UC-Berkeley faculty members. As Ignacio Chapela, a UC professor of microbial ecology, told Atlantic Monthly magazine, "This deal institutionalizes the university's relationship with one company, whose interest is profit. Our role should be to serve the public good."

Land-grant researchers increasingly find themselves shut out of the scientific process by patents owned by industry. For instance, William Folk, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, recently found that he could not obtain licenses to use certain plant-transformation techniques developed by industry. He wanted to use the techniques to improve plant nutritional quality. "A large part of this [ag research] work is done in the public sector," says Folk. "But broad patents on the technology make them inaccessible to us."

Michigan State University recently licensed patents to Amway for health products MSU researchers developed in part with funds from the Cherry Marketing Institute. The deal came as a shock to CMI Director Phil Korson, who had no idea MSU had patented anything as a result of its work for cherry growers.

"I would warn any commodity group that funds university research to make clear at the beginning who is going to own the intellectual property rights for what they develop," says Korson. "Growers can't take their relationship with [public] universities for granted any more."

Long Ties Strained

Farmers have long thought of state universities as their own, ever since the Morrill Act of 1862 gave federal lands to states as a way to fund education based on "agriculture and the mechanical arts."

But three developments in the last 20 years have put a strain on the university-farmer relationship, while pushing the public sector and big business closer together. First, federal funding for ag research has been flat since the 1980s, yet the price of research keeps rising. (By one estimate, it takes an average of $300,000 a year to keep one university researcher on staff and properly equipped.) As a result, land-grants have had to scramble to find new sources of funding.

Second, Congress in 1980 passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which enables universities to patent inventions and processes developed during federally funded research. Suddenly, public institutions had access to the profits of the marketplace, and they responded with vigor. By 1998, the top 10 research universities held 1,921 patent licenses, earned more than $370 million a year in license revenues and had started up 78 for-profit companies, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The third event made agriculture a prime target for patents. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that life forms could be patented, it made biotechnology a goose that promised to lay unlimited golden eggs for those who owned the patents. Private industry rushed into biotech, and so did land-grants. Within months of that Supreme Court decision, faculty members at UC-Davis created Calgene, a private company and one of the first biotech companies out of the chute.

Money Trail

University administrators interviewed for this article acknowledge that funding needs have created new ground rules for ag research. "Farmers and land-grants have always had a good relationship, because colleges could respond to farmers' needs," says James Fischer, dean for public service research at Clemson University. "But now the faculty is having to go to outside sources [for funds]. Colleges are no longer in the driver's seat. My concern is, Who is setting the research agenda?"

Researchers have to seek outside sources, because federal funds have not kept pace either with inflation or with the cost of new technology. In 1978, the USDA food and agriculture budget was about $1.6 billion. By 1998, it had fallen to about $1.5 billion.

Formula funding (the federal government's dollar-for-dollar matching funds for state land-grants) has decreased 8% in the last 10 years, says Fischer. Meanwhile, federal funding for other types of research (health, energy, defense, etc.) has increased. Agriculture gets a mere two cents of every research dollar Uncle Sam spends.

While federal funding for ag research has declined or remained flat, private industry has increased its spending an average of 4.5% each year since 1980. It now spends about 60% of all money spent on ag research in the U.S., says Fischer. With the federal cupboard increasingly bare and with private industry willing to spend, it's little wonder that researchers - and universities - look longingly to the private companies for funds.

Partners or Payola?

The perception that universities have sold out is unfair and inaccurate, says Mike Chippendale, former head of Extension Research at the University of Missouri. "Put it in perspective," he says. "Only 8% of total college support comes from outside industries. The rest is nonindustry support. But it's that small piece [8%] that gets everyone's attention." Chippendale is keenly aware of public scrutiny of university-industry ties. Monsanto contributes mightily to UM ag research, and the university has taken some heat for its perceived closeness to the St. Louis-based company. Particularly snide critics have given UM a nickname: The University of Monsanto.

Chippendale shakes his head at the intended slur. "Monsanto's home is in this state," he says. "We work on many of the same things they do. It's only natural that we work together somehow. Partnering is not the same as selling out."

The concern over university-industry partnerships is overblown, says Terry Wolf, an Illinois farmer who is president of the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research. The group was formed early in 2001 by universities, private companies and individuals with the goal of doubling federal funding for ag research in the next five years.

"We have always had a partnership with public and private research," says Wolf. "The populist philosophy that says we shouldn't [have such partnerships] doesn't have much foundation in fact."

Even if universities wanted to avoid partnerships-and they don't-government encourages them to seek outside sources to supplement their income. "When we go to the state legislature and a senator from Dallas asks the question, 'Is the industry providing matching funds for our appropriation?' our answer better be 'yes,' " says Ed Hiler, deputy chancellor and dean of agriculture at Texas A&M.

Administrators aren't the only university employees feeling the pressure to get closer to private companies. On condition that we not use his name, a researcher at a Midwestern land-grant university told Progressive Farmer, "We are being told we need to form relationships with private industry. Our main mission is revenue generation. There is not a big pool of money for research. So we are all fighting to get our share."

Other current and former researchers tell the same story. One who left a public institution to go to work for a private company says he did so in part because fund-raising became too much of a distraction.

"I probably spent 15 to 20% of my time [at the university] submitting grant proposals. In the private sector, you don't spend nearly as much time on it [fund-raising for research]. You can do what you're trained to do," he says.

The researchers we interviewed deny, however, that ties with industry affect the objectivity of their research. Says one researcher at a land-grant, "Even though we take that money, we show no bias. We can't, and we don't."

As for bias in setting research agendas, Chippendale and other university administrators insist that the public's good is their first concern. Strict procedures ensure that research proposals come in and are evaluated, voted on and prioritized without bias. Farmer "stakeholders" are a part of the process along the way.

"But we have to look very, very closely at our priorities, because we can't do many of the things we'd like to do. The money isn't there," says Chippendale.

Seed breeding is a good example of a research area that has suffered from a lack of funds.

"In cotton, there are probably fewer than half the cotton breeders in the public sector that there were 15 years ago," says Tom Kerby, Delta and Pine Land Company's vice president of technical services.

He lists land-grants that got out of the cotton-breeding business. He says, "The heads of university ag research programs look at plant breeding and see that they don't get much money from state legislatures for applied research like that. So they drop it."

"There is a real concern, especially for minor crops," says Chippendale. "Industry will take care of the major crops, because that's where the money is. But minor crops? Niche crops? Who is going to work on them?"

Who, indeed?

Industry's Stake

Kerby will tell you that his company has a stake in strong land-grant plant-breeding programs. "We are not in competition with them," he says. "We pay royalties every year [to universities] to use important varieties they developed." What's more, if land-grants cut all plant-breeding programs, where would future plant breeders go to learn? And without trained breeders, how could D&PL develop new cotton varieties?

Private companies will tell you that they don't have-and don't want-land-grant universities in their pockets.

"I don't think it's happening," says Rob Horsch, Monsanto's vice president of product and technology cooperation. "The No. 1 issue for us with universities and with science is to get good information . . . unbiased, believable, reproducible information."

If growers perceive university research as biased, the perception becomes reality. Then they stop trusting what land-grant scientists tell them.

"Even the possibility that it could happen is a good argument for public-sector funding," says Horsch.

That's one reason Monsanto is a member of National C-FAR, whose goal is to increase federal funding for public universities.

"From our perspective, we want to see a healthy university system," says D&PL's Kerby. "We want to see universities taking on plant breeding and teaching that to students. But we also want to be in a position to provide some support." --with reports by Del Deterling


"Well I think there is a very real problem from the point of view of university research in the way that private companies have entered the university, both with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate of what might be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's got contracts and one's got shareholders."
Professor Steven Rose of the UK's Open University, Biology Dept

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