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The Profit Motive, Academic Freedom and the Case of Ignacio Chapela

by ALI TONAK

“I am living proof of what happens when biotech buys a university. The first thing that goes is independent research. The university is a delicate organism. When its mission and orientation are compromised, it dies. Corporate biotechnology is killing this university.”

Ignacio Chapela, interview by John Ross Feb. 2004

Tenure, a reward of permanent employment given to exceptional university professors, is an essential aspect of academia. The American Association of University Professors defines tenure as “a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

This status allows researchers to ask controversial questions without fear of losing their livelihood or academic opportunities. Tenure is meant to encourage free thought and critical thinking, but the case of Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor in the Environmental Science Department at the University of California-Berkeley, it was used as a weapon. According to those who question the increasingly cozy relationships between supposedly public universities and corporations, this was not an isolated case, but a warning to other professors not to oppose private funders and an indication of a growing trend.

In 1998, pharmaceutical giant Novartis signed a $25,000,000 deal with Berkeley’s College of Natural Sciences, without the consultation of the faculty. In exchange for the funding, Novartis gained exclusive patent rights to one-third of all of CNS’s research. Among other perks, the contract explicitly grants Novartis direct influence over the specific areas of the college’s research. Ignacio Chapela, along with several other colleagues, criticized the deal, warning that the influence of the world’s second largest pharmaceutical corporation would dictate priorities. The legitimacy of this concern was quickly justified.

Illicit Exposure

Chapela’s long-standing relationship with the agricultural community of Oaxaca, Mexico began when he helped set up a laboratory that facilitated the export of profitable Shitake mushrooms to Japan. While examining the native maize population in Oaxaca in October of 2000, one of Chapela’s graduate students, David Quist, made a shocking discovery. Despite a ban imposed by the Mexican government upon genetically-engineered(GE) corn in the birth place of modern maize domestication, there was clear evidence of genetic contamination.

DNA, the fundamental genetic unit found in every living organism, is a biological fingerprint. The DNA of every organism holds a unique genetic code, making it useful in criminology and other legal matters, such as determining parenthood. In Mexico alone there are 59 distinct races of corn, each with large numbers of sub-varieties. The presence of DNA from genetically modified corn revealed by Quist’s discovery presented a serious threat to the biodiversity of the native species, because genetically-modified crops have the potential to cross-breed with native crops, altering the evolution of the entire population.

While indigenous farmers rushed to preserve their heritage by saving seeds and plants, Chapela and Quist began to investigate the source of the contamination. Since the Monsanto Corporation was the first company to incorporate biotechnology into agri-business, the researchers examined the Oaxacan maize for the presence of a particular, Monsanto-patented genetic sequence. In five out of seven samples, this turned out to be the case. Further tests indicated a match with synthetically-created DNA constructs manufactured by several corporations, including Berkeley’s funder, Novartis.

Genetically modified pollen can travel great distances via wind and water currents. It’s not uncommon for genes to cross between species through vectors such as viruses and bacteria. The factors contributing to gene flow are numerous and, at this point, non-computable. While the origins of Oaxaca’s maize contamination remain unclear, it is obvious that the ban on GE corn cultivation by the Mexican Department of Agriculture in 1998 had not been enough.

Retribution

Fearing that this discovery would not be taken lightly by the millions who eat corn tortillas 3 times a day, Ignacio Chapela was contacted by the director of Mexico’s bio-security commission, Dr. Fernando Ortiz Monasterio. Monasterio met Chapela in an abandoned building. In a scene reminiscent of a mafia movie, a furious Monasterio berated Chapela for exposing the biotech industry to a potentially disastrous backlash. “‘You have gotten yourself into some serious shit this time,” Monasterio reportedly shouted. “But you will not stop us — no one will stop us!”

In an attempt to save face, Monsanto hired the Bivings Group, a Washington PR firm. To discredit Chapela and Quist’s research, an e-mail criticizing their methods and findings was sent to the mailing list of AgBioWorld?, a major portal for the biotech industry. The supposed author of this e-mail, “Mary Murphy”, was soon revealed to be a fictional character created by someone “working for Bivings” or “clients using our services,” as Todd Zeigler, head of the PR firm’s online department, admitted in a BBC interview. This confession came as a result of an investigation by a British anti-GMO campaigner, Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Information Network, who traced the origin of the e-mail to a computer operated by Bivings.

Despite this revelation, serious damage had already been inflicted upon the legitimacy of Chapela and Quist’s research by “Murphy”’s critique. In response to the controversy created by this e-mail, Nature, a leading scientific journal, published the following notice in April 2002: “In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the (Chapela and Quist’s) paper. As the authors nevertheless wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors’ response and new data, and to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves.” Nature may have been reluctant to support the Berkeley scientists’ conclusions, but subsequent studies conducted by the Mexican Government (National Institute of Ecology, INE, and National Commission of Biodiversity) confirmed the presence of genes from transgenic maize within native crop populations.

The Tenure Battle

The process to grant Chapela tenure began promisingly with a favorable 32 to 1 vote within his department. Despite the merit of his work and the affirmation of his colleagues, his tenure approval stalled once it reached top-level administrators. With no feedback from the closed-door tenure committee, Chapela was convinced that “there is another set of criteria that counterweigh the strength of the case,” clearly implying the influence of biotech, the industry that had showered Berkeley with $25,000,000.

Last summer, Chapela protested the kowtowing of University administrators to private entities by moving his office, piece by piece, onto the lawn. In an online article published in CounterPunch he explained his motivation for this action: “Beginning at 6 o’clock this morning, as I enter the final days of my contract as a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, I intend to mark and celebrate them, by doing what I believe a professor in a public university must do: to further reason and understanding. For the brief time that remains of my terminal contract at Berkeley, I shall sit holding office hours, day and night, outside the doors of California Hall. This is the building housing the Budget Committee of the Academic Senate, and the office of the Chancellor, the two arms of our university governance in charge of my file.”

Chapela’s tenure decision remained in limbo for another 6 months, but eventually, last fall, a rejection was delivered by Chancellor Robert Berdahl. An uproar ensued as hundreds of letters supporting Chapela poured in to the Chancellor’s office. Many academics wrote to Berdahl, questioning his decision and demanding greater transparency in the tenure process. Recently, the Graduate Assembly of the University voted unanimously to further pressure Berdahl into exposing the factors contributing to his rejection. “We’re just being supportive of the transparency of the process,” Jessica Quindel, president of the Graduate Assembly, told The Daily Cal. “There’s been a lot of secrecy about this—we just want to know why he was denied tenure.”

This fall Berdahl’s term as Chancellor comes to an end. This change of administration has encouraged Chapela to fight for his tenure at Berkeley. The new Chancellor will have the power to reverse Berdahl’s decision, so there is still hope, but if Novartis has it’s way, Igancio Chapela’s days of unveiling biotech fallacies at Berkeley will soon be history.

Genetic engineering has taken place for hundreds of years by the farmers of the world. A fruit that tasted better then another was selected to be planted year after year increasing its abundance.

Others were artificially mated with each other to produce tastes and odors pleasant to our senses. The problem arises when profit coupled with irresponsible science dictates these choices rather than the producers and their particular needs. The giants of Biotech have no concern in the preservation of the biodiversity for future generations of animals and plants; they are looking to maximize their shareholder values next month or next year. The tenure system has also historically preserved the integrity of research conducted in the university, selecting the ripe minds and nurturing them over the years. Today both UC Berkeley and the global population have reached a critical turning point where the decisions concerning tenure and nourishment are dictated by capital.

If you are disturbed by corporate influence on a public university, especially concerning the safety GMOs, visit www.tenurejustice.org and take action now.

ALI TONAK is a volunteer with the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center and it’s monthly publication Fault Lines.


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