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UC Berkeley To Fire Ignacio Chapela For Criticism of the University's Deal With Novartis

by biotech
Ignacio Chapela, an outspoken biotechnology critic, has been denied tenure by the University of California, Berkeley and will be let go when his employment contract expires in June.
SAN FRANCISCO(AP) -- Ignacio Chapela, an outspoken biotechnology critic, has been denied tenure by the University of California, Berkeley and will be let go when his employment contract expires in June.

Chapela didn't return telephone calls Thursday. He told the science journal Nature in a story published Thursday that he's going to fight the school's decision.

Chapela was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor and teaches in the school's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. He has been a controversial figure on campus, loudly opposing a five-year, $25 million deal Berkeley signed in 1998 with Swiss agriculture giant Novartis to do agricultural biotechnology research. Two years ago, Chapela co-authored a study published in the journal Nature that concluded that DNA from genetically engineered corn contaminated native maize in Mexico.

The study was denounced by the biotechnology industry and Nature later said there wasn't enough evidence available to justify publication of the paper. The journal did not retract the original paper but printed two harsh criticisms of the work as well as a defense by the researchers, who presented new data.

Chapela presented the disputed paper as justification for tenure.

Berkeley officials have been reviewing Chapela's tenure status since November 2000, an unusually long time. Nature reported that 32 faculty members in his department voted for tenure and one against, with three abstentions.

Chapela's supporters claim he's being denied tenure by the administration because of his outspoken criticism of the university's deal with Novartis.

"The tenure process at this university is as strenuous and as demanding and as fair as any in the country and in many ways even more strenuous and it must be that way for us to maintain our position as being pre-eminent," said school spokesman George Strait. "We stand by the process."
§Call to action
by call to action
Ignacio Chapela, an ecologist known for his controversial research on genetically modified corn, is turning a career setback into a call for action among scientists opposed to the influence of corporate interests on academic research.

Chapela, who was denied tenure last month at the University of California at Berkeley, is now accusing the institution of trying to please the biotech industry by shutting him out.

He gathered a group of similarly beleaguered scientists on the Berkeley campus this week in an attempt to gain public support in their fight against corporate influence over science.

"It's part of what I believe is a very tragic historical development and it's not about me," Chapela said. "It is a historical development that's happening right in front of our eyes. (Biology is) being narrowed and channeled down to one way of looking at the world that I think is not going to give us too many answers."

Chapela and others protested a contract between UC Berkeley and the agricultural biotech firm Novartis (now called Syngenta) in 1998 that gave the company rights to the university's plant research, calling it a conflict of interest. Chapela went on to publish a study showing that genetically modified corn had made its way into maize crops in Mexico, which are considered pristine.

Read More,1286,61560,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_1
§Tenure, Censorship and Biotechnology
by UCB: Money Before Education

We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying, and unpredictable.
He hesitated to answer, and then said judiciously:

"I think I shall praise it."

Robert Hass

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.

I am saddened by the failure of the administration and the Academic Senate to resolve in a timely fashion whether to grant me tenure at Berkeley. I believe that I have contributed to the mission of the university and my heart and intellect are also vested in its health and growth. All but one of the colleagues who witness my everyday teaching and research in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management have repeatedly stated their support for my tenure, and so have a set of external expert reviewers and the leadership of my College. To the extent that reason can assess, I do not know of any other academic information on the case that might suggest that a negative decision should be reached. Yet as of tonight, well over a year into the part of the process conducted in secret in California Hall, no decision has been made, as far as I am aware. I must therefore conclude that there is another set of criteria that counterweigh the strength of the case, but that such information cannot be publically shared. In the face of such lack of transparency and accountability, I choose to hold office hours in public, in the open, and in the midst of our beautiful campus. I do so in celebration of my vocation and my time at Berkeley, and not in the expectation that such an action will change the course of the decision process, whatever that might be.

It has been suggested that the extraordinary delay in reaching a decision on my tenure case without ostensible reason may be the result of, even retribution for, my advising our campus, academe, the government and the public against dangerous liaisons with the biotechnology industry, as well as my concerns regarding the problems with biotechnology itself. Without doubt, the uncertainty and reproach implicit in the silence on campus surrounding my case has had grave consequences for my professional, public and personal life. But such are the wages of doing work that has significance for the world, and it will be up to those sifting through the files of this case to discern the twists and turns that brought us to this moment, and to pass the judgment of history on the motives and actions of those involved, within and beyond our community. It is difficult to blame otherwise principled individuals for not voicing their best understanding. Fear is justified when even the president of the country equates with criminal acts any questioning of the wisdom of deploying transgenic crops. Against the desire of some to banish critical thinking from the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, I choose to sit, openly available for discourse, in the heart of our campus.

At least one person has said that I should be banned from the academic system, implying that my work harms the public role of the university as a hothouse for the agbiotech industry. Indeed I have long stood against the folly of planting 100 million acres with transgenic crops each year, without knowing even the simplest consequences of such a massive intervention in the biosphere. An increasing number of scientists seem to be reaching the same position. It seems also true that research in my laboratory has prompted serious public concerns that the industry would rather not address. An industry on the crutches of public subsidy for a quarter of a century, an industry that trembles in the face of the simplest token of precautionary research, is hardly an industry that deserves to carry the public trust, much less our best hope for recovery in a flagging economy. It would seem rational that our university--and the public--should strive to keep an independent source of advice on the wisdom of supporting such an industry. Rationality, however, must take a back seat when the university becomes grafted to a specific industry. Such has increasingly been the case at Berkeley and at other universities.

At a time of rampant obscurantism and irrationality, I am proud of the privilege vested in me by the public as a professor at Berkeley. In fulfillment of the duty attached to that privilege, I intend to share the light of rationality during office hours over the next five days, together with those who might wish to join me.

Fiat lux.

Ignacio H. Chapela is Assistant Professor (Microbial Ecology) Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California at Berkeley.

Logistical details and contacts:

I will sit in an "office" without walls. This means that I will most likely not have direct access to an AC electric wall outlet.

My email address is ichapela [at] In case of server breakdown, please use ihchapela [at] responses may be delayed for some hours.

I will foreseeably be in my "office" 24 hours a day (except for short unavoidable breaks) from Thursday to Monday midnight, circumstances allowing. Three chairs will accommodate myself and two others in this transparent office. Bring your own portable chair if you need to. I hope to be able to offer tea and biscuits, but that is not a promise. These last days have been on the hot side, but with any luck the natural "breathing cycle" of the Bay Area will bring fog relief for at least some of the mornings between Thursday and Monday. At meal times, I will have space for company, although the seating may be less than royal, and the menus are still being planned.

Despite President Bush's emphatic demands this week, the House has yet to pass the BioShield legislation, and there may be further delays in the Senate. Nevertheless, I am making efforts to comply with the current spirit on our campus and across the nation by surrounding my office with protective, gray, duct tape, for added security. Visitors from Toronto and elsewhere in the world, please note that I will also have protective face masks and rubber gloves at hand.

After midnight on Monday, I will be travelling to the Gen-ecology laboratory in Norway until 22 July. I will be underway for a week, subsequently available via my alternate email account: ihchapela [at]
by background
Food fight

Caught in the maize at Berkeley

By Ayala Ochert

It all began with a single cob of corn. Picked in a remote part of Oaxaca, Mexico, this seemingly innocent vegetable made its way into a lab in Berkeley. From there, it sparked a food fight on a global scale. Accusations were hurled back and forth of "bad science," "McCarthyism," and "conflicts of interest," creating a mess of science, politics, ethics, international trade, and global ecology.

That contentious cob of corn, a local Mexican varietal, was brought to Berkeley by graduate student David Quist. When Quist analyzed the kernels in his lab, to his surprise he found traces of DNA from genetically engineered corn, the planting of which has been banned in Mexico since 1998. This indicated that transgenic corn was growing illegally in Mexico, and that it was crossing with the local corn varieties.

Quist and his adviser, assistant professor Ignacio Chapela, spent the next several months confirming this result, and in November of last year published a paper in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature. Their findings were important and troubling, says Chapela, because these transgenes might eventually infiltrate every native variety in Mexico, thus reducing the genetic diversity of maize. Corn originated in Mexico, which remains the center of genetic diversity of the crop; threats to local varieties would also threaten our future food security, says Chapela.

In their paper, Quist and Chapela also presented evidence that the transgenes themselves, once they move into local varieties, become unstable, splitting apart and scattering throughout the genome. If correct, this would mean that the effects of these renegade genes in the wild would be unpredictable and potentially hazardous.

Immediately following publication of the Nature article, environmental groups including Greenpeace called for an immediate ban on the import to Mexico of transgenic corn from the U.S., the presumed source of the "contamination." But, almost as quickly, some plant biologists began to take issue with the Quist and Chapela paper, saying that the science was wrong, despite the fact that Nature uses independent scientists to check for errors before publication. Critics called on the journal to retract the paper.

And so the "Mexican maize scandal," as Science magazine has called it, was born. Petitions were circulated, each side accusing the other of conflicts of interest. Environmental groups charged that there was a McCarthyist campaign led by the plant biotechnology industry to silence Quist and Chapela and their work. Scientists supportive of transgenic research dismissed the two Berkeley researchers as "activists" rather than scientists, and claimed that their research was driven by politics alone.

"They have nothing there, except preconceptions," charges Michael Freeling, a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) who signed a petition calling for a retraction of the Nature paper. "It’s just politically motivated." Chapela counters: "Behind their superficial technical criticism lies a very deep and very strong political campaign."


Then, in April, things really blew up. Nature published two critiques of the original paper, plus a response from Quist and Chapela. One of those critiques was written by Nick Kaplinsky, a graduate student of Michael Freeling’s, who, along with others (pictured below), also signed the petition against the original paper.

But the real spark in the powder keg was a note from the editor which said: "Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper." It is believed to be the first time in its 133-year history that the journal has done such a thing.

Chapela’s supporters claimed that Nature‘s unprecedented move was proof of a campaign to discredit him. They alleged that Nature‘s withdrawal of support was timed to influence a meeting in The Hague in which the world’s environment ministers were to discuss the very issue of transgenic crops in centers of genetic diversity. Biotechnology companies, they said, didn’t want Chapela’s findings getting in the way of lifting the Mexican moratorium on the planting of transgenic crops or other restrictions elsewhere.

Critics: (left to right, top row) David Braun, Michael Freeling, Sarah Hake, Nick Kaplinsky; (bottom row) Damon Lisch, Angela Hay

Some suggested another plot--a local campaign to force Chapela out of Berkeley. Professor Miguel Altieri, a colleague of Chapela’s, suggests that the critiques had been timed to come out just before Chapela’s tenure review this spring. Altieri points out that many in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology had a bone to pick with Chapela, who has been an outspoken critic of the deal signed by their department in 1999 with the biotech company Novartis (now Syngenta). "Now it’s time for payback," says Altieri.

But Kaplinsky is adamant that his critique had no connection with the Novartis deal, and points out that he personally does not receive money from Novartis. "It had nothing to do with that at all. Here was a paper in our field of expertise [maize genetics] that was making some pretty wild claims," says Kaplinsky. "Clearly, there is history here. But I really think if I ever see science this bad published again, especially in Nature, I’d write a letter about it."

Quist and Chapela identified the transgenic elements using a technique called inverse PCR (iPCR), which Kaplinsky argues is prone to false positives. "It was really sloppy science. No self-respecting scientist would take that approach because it gives you meaningless results," he says. Kaplinsky argues that the DNA sequences identified in the paper as "transgenic" are nothing more than artifacts. Quist counters that he took those issues into account in designing his experiments. "That’s why we spent so much time and used rigorous controls-to be able to say those aren’t false positives," he says.

Chapela believes that the published critiques themselves show evidence of something other than just "healthy scientific debate." He notes that criticism focused not on their main finding--that native corn has been crossing with transgenic corn--but only on their secondary conclusion-that transgenes break apart and scatter upon entering a new genome. "Of the eight [DNA] sequences that we published, two sequences were challenged, and we agreed that the critics’ interpretation of these sequences is better," says Chapela, who adds that iPCR is
still an exploratory technique whose results are open to interpretation. "But then they go on to say that all eight sequences are wrong--not misinterpreted but wrong--and that therefore our methodology is wrong, the lab is badly run, and our primary statement is also wrong."

Although he is reluctant to believe that his colleagues at PMB have been plotting to get rid of him, Chapela does think that Novartis has had an influence on the course of events. He notes that the second critique in Nature was written by a former PMB graduate student, Matthew Metz, a vocal supporter of the Berkeley-Novartis deal. "People have viewed it as a local vendetta against me and David [Quist], but I think that’s myopic. I believe somebody used the tension that existed here, because of the Berkeley-Novartis deal, for a much larger political purpose."
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