Corporate Backing for Research? Get Over it

i-b5b6e7029a012c2f0cca64fcc2f67295-articleLarge.jpgRoger Beachy has been attacked by some who feel that his willingness to fund work at his non-profit institute with Monsanto money will bias his work as director of NIFA.

John Tierney does not think so. Read his opinion piece

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Nice article; thanks for the link.

I remember when I was a political science grad student at Oregon and some of my colleagues were complaining about the increasing role of corporate money in research (and education generally). They believed the public was being unfair in resisting an increase in public monies being directed to us, and--despite allegedly studying political science--couldn't seem to understand that simply demanding that the public support us wasn't an effective strategy for squeezing more money out of them. I then suggested that the only remaining alternative to corporate money was to get really old fashioned and turn to the Catholic Church. They didn't find that amusing. But they never addressed my basic point--there are limited funding sources, so researchers should be careful about issuing a blanket rejection of one of them.

John Tierney is a climate change denier, a libertarian, and a corporate shill. Of course he'd support corporate buyouts of science and government.

The bigger problem is the NIFA itself. From Wiki:

The mission of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is to stimulate and fund the research and technological innovations that will enhance and make American agriculture more productive and environmentally sustainable while ensuring the economic viability of agriculture and production.

Notice the question-begging here. It's assumed that research and technology will lead to more sustainable and environmentally sound agriculture. But Dr. Beachy's entire career has been about creating GMOs for Monsanto to patent. How 'sustainable' is an agriculture that requires farmers to buy seeds fresh from a megacorporation every year or be arrested for 'copyright violations'? I don't care that he funds his nonprofit with Monsanto funds. I do care that his focus, and the focus of the NIFA, is about taking agriculture farther and farther away from natural, sustainable practices. We need less technology, not more; regression to the old, organic, sustainable agriculture, not 'progress' to further dependence on fossil fuel fertilizers and unnatural mutant crops.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

The very idea of genomes as intellectual property is morally repugnant, and that is the issue with Monsanto.

Tsc @4

Where have genomes been considered intellectual property? As far as I am aware they have not, and about the closest you would come to that is in traditional plant breeding where new hybrids are protected by a patent like system which is every bit as enforcable as the patent system covering genetic modification, and requires every bit as much purchasing seeds on a yearly basis.

Mad the swine@3 - you make the false assumption here that all GMOs will be owned by corporations who iwll be making a buck off them, and completely preclude the possibility that non-profit groups may (with industry funding) be able to provide GMOs in the less commercially succesful crops which could lead to massive benefits globally in terms of food production.

Your equation of organic with sustainable is also pretty far fetched - at least when one takes into account the massive rise in world population, and the massive increase in demand for high protein diets (I believe China currently consumes ~50% meat per person as compared to the US - a figure which is steadily trending upwards, India shows a similar picture (although I believe they are lagging behind somewhat) - in what way would be turning India and China back to the "old organic sustainable" agriculture be even remotely helpful - considering that the main agricultural advance to benefit these countries, and many others, was the green revolution (which was a combination of "mutant plants" and high input agriculture) - a marked move away from 'traditional agriculture'

mad the swine: "We need less technology, not more; regression to the old, organic, sustainable agriculture, not 'progress' to further dependence on fossil fuel fertilizers and unnatural mutant crops."

Yes, let's regress, because it was so good back then with the starving, disease, and here today, gone tomorrow crops. Why the hell did we ever climb down from the trees anyway?

And which "unnatural mutant crops" would those be, BTW? The F1 hybrids created via radiation and intensive breeding that the 'Organic' growers love so much? Or maybe it's that Heirloom Tomato (TM) that has been lovingly guided along by it's generational keepers for so long it is no longer even recognizable as a decedent of its original genotype. Get a clue. All crops are "unnatural mutants".

Where have genomes been considered intellectual property?

Given that you posted this message on a blog, and hence, over the Internet, can I safely assume that at the time and place that you posted it, Google was less than three mouse clicks away?

By Centillion (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

As a UC Davis PhD student (though not in the life sciences), I would be curious to learn more how people here view the relationship between Monsanto and UC Davis. Of course this is not the only ethically controversial funding source -- there's also our invasion-happy DoD and the nuclear-weapons labs, for instance --, but this one I know less about.

What I did find:

Prof. Ronald, would you care to discuss your view of the ethics of research funding?

@ Ev #8

Wow, those links seemed rather scare-mongery. The 'public' never seems happy. Fund research with taxpayers money and they complain itâs not going to something 'better', like roads or cops. Start accepting funds from companies and they call you a sell-out.

You know, money isnât COMPULSORILY corrupting.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hi all,

Thanks for your comments. It would be simplest if the state of california and the federal government fund the UC system and all our students. Sadly that prospect seems to be receding into the distant future.

About 15 years ago, monsanto funded 2 students and 2 postdocs in my lab for 3 years. The students were quite successful- the research may someday lead to bananas that can withstand a bacterial disease that is sweeping over Eastern Africa, where 100 million people depend on banana as a primary food source. Monsanto does not have any IP rights to these genes and if we are successful, UC Davis will provide the IP freely to developing countries as we did with the Xa21 gene and the Sub 1 gene (both these projects were funded by government grants).

I have not received industry funding for the last 15 years, but would consider it to fund students and projects if it were offered on appropriate terms (no meddling with the research, freedom to publish etc). UC Davis has very clear rules when it comes to industry research contracts that I am quite comfortable with. It is important to disclose funding sources and then let the public decide for themselves. But to say no to all corporate funding does not make sense. Although the amount of corporate funding in the overall budget at UC Davis is quite small (I believe it is something like 10%), to rule out accepting any corporate funding makes no sense. Car companies fund studies on electric vehicles, computer companies fund studies on computational science, corporate retailers (eg. Whole foods, Seeds of Change) funds studies on food processing and plant breeding, ag companies fund studies on genetic research plant breeding. Who benefits? The students, the state of california, the nation and the globe.


Safe assumptions all, lets however assume that upon looking (after being called out) I was mildly surprised to see that some genomes appear to have been patented (albeit viral genomes and bacterial, and therefore of little meaning to the discussion at hand - generally with the distinction that the patented genome was patented to ensure it be kept in the public domain) - surprised because in general to be patentable an idea must be new (so a new genome sequence I guess would count), have some specific use (not sure how one would go about getting a specific use from a genome - even gene patents require very tight definition) and be useful (again, I have issues seeing how this would be applicable to a whole genome)

@3"We need less technology, not more; regression to the old, organic, sustainable agriculture, not 'progress' to further dependence on fossil fuel fertilizers and unnatural mutant crops."
Wow. How very enlightened. Technology is just the application of scientific knowledge. How one can find something wrong with that is beyond me. If leaving something alone is better without a particular technology, prove it and then, for that particular case, that is a reasonable stance until a technology that does improve the thing in question comes along. And unnatural mutant crops? All crops are mutations. Not just via breeding or genetic engineering or whatever, as has been pointed out, but by millions of years of screw ups in the genetic code. Really, do you trust such an imprecise and haphazard process as evolution altering the genes of the food you eat so dramatically? :)

By Party Cactus (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

@Centillion: the second lamest argument (after who is paying you?) is "Google it".

It's interesting that this debate always focuses on conflicts generated by receiving funding from for-profit ventures. Why are spokespeople supported by tendentious non-profit organizations exempted from suspicions of conflicts?

Let's say my non-profit objects to some aspect of mainstream agribusiness--a perfectly valid position, which could be argued on its merits. How to best ensure a stream of funding through contributions from interested individuals? Fear turns out to be a great generator of revenue! Hence, for example: "we just don't know whether GMOs are safe for human consumption," or "GMOs are made using vectors--vectors also cause human disease," and other scientifically and logically questionable propositions. Now, all of a sudden, we're talking about the safety of the science behind plant transformation, rather than discussing what constitutes the best way to produce and distribute food.

That, my friends, in morally repugnant, none of these groups ever seem to get called on it.

Thanks, Tierney. Toss off a facile "get over it", as if all those who question the growing influence of corporate agendas in public institutions are mean-spirited whiners. Public universities were founded and continue to be funded by the public purse. There is an obligation and a very clear expectation that they pursue their single overarching objective of creating the greatest possible public welfare within the confines of their educational and scientific missions. There is, or course, room for much divergent opinion regarding how best to fulfill that goal, and how to value different outcomes in terms of the public welfare they produce.

However, a disturbing trend is increasingly evident, dating roughly from the advent of the Bayh-Dole law from 1980 which essentially gave public universities the right -even the obligation - to use intellectual property law to enhance the commercial value of their research. Together with declining support for taxpayer-funded research budgets, the increasing role of the private sector in many areas of the economy, developments in intellectual property law (such as extension of patentability to living organisms), Bayh-Dole has contributed to a situation in which the private sector is increasingly present, even dominating, the orientation of research programs in public universities across the US. From a Monsanto press release:

ST. LOUIS, April 15, 2009 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Monsanto Company announced today the appointment of David L. Chicoine, Ph.D., to the company's Board of Directors. Dr. Chicoine is currently president of South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings , South Dakota .

From the SDSU student newspaper: âMonsanto recently donated $1 million for a plant breeding fellowship at SDSU, and according to a Securities and Exchange Commission report, the seed company has given SDSU $222,000 in research grants thus far in the fiscal year 2009. Between a retainer and benefits package, Chicoine will personally receive about $400,000 for his work with the board this year.â

The potential perception of impropriety is hard to explain away. To have the funding of a public ag-oriented university and its public servants so intimately enmeshed in the embrace of a leading agribusiness is bad policy.

The potential for private interests to skew research agendas to their own agendas, to exercise right of first refusal to the innovations, patents etc that come out of the programs, or to limit the ability of researchers to share their results widely among their peers is a growing issue. Don't pretend that such involvement will not have a distorting influence on debates about "the best way to produce and distribute food"; it is all about control of proprietary technology, genetic resources, and knowledge.

Shouldn't be any great surprise; it is what companies try to do. Sometimes it maximises societal welfare; sometime it does not. Anti-trust, independent public institutions and other attempts to ensure fair competition and unbiased debate are essential elements to ensure the monopolist does not have his way.

Geo: I'm not saying that I disagree that corporate involvement in public research endeavors could have potential problems, but when you say something like:
"...Bayh-Dole has contributed to a situation in which the private sector is increasingly present, even dominating, the orientation of research programs in public universities across the US."

I have to ask what the evidence for this is? Bayh-Dole applies to federally funded research. Under it, the university (or non-profit) retains licensing control of the IP. The Feds are also granted license to the IP. That is, the public institutions involved and government are granted licenses to the IP. Where is the evil corporation coming into this? Corporates are leary of it because any IP that comes from their supported research could, in theory, be extended to a third party by the Feds, although that has never happened.

What your example has to do with any of this escapes me. A large corporate bought a university president. Questionable and problematic from many aspects, yes, but the results of Bayh-Dole? I don't see it.

Geo - I don't think that just because Monsanto has strong ties with a university, both through the president and through grants, this is necessarily a bad thing.

Could it be that having board members with expertise in the area of the business, and with connections to others with expertise in the business, could just be a good thing without the supposition that this is an attempt to "change the debate"

Equally investing money into a plant breeder fellowship plus money towards research grants has implications both for science and for Monsanto that do not necessarily involve cloak and dagger politics. Monsanto has stated that it views its mission as improving the lives of farmers (my take on the message, at least from an internal stance, is that this is not a purely profit driven motive, although if a profit can be made so much the better) - by providing much needed funding (ask a plant breeder!) Monsanto can help to provide research that can go on to help farmers globally without spending internal resources to do so.

Also, in funding research programs, fellowships and linking with academia Monsanto can in essence help plant the seeds (see what I did there?) for its own future success - this lies in having available, in the workforce, a pool of great minds in breeding and related sciences from which to hire - this is a resource which if it dies out will leave Monsanto (and all the big seed/ag companies) stagnant - and will equally leave agriculture stagnant - which wouldnt be a good thing for anybody.

If you really want to get hardcore conspiracy theorist about it (as I believe you have to for any real traction with this 'ahha, Monsanto employed you once, or paid you once' mentality of distrust) then yes, anyone who has ever paid you money retains your loyalty (we all know that is the truth right? I know I'd fall on my sword for any one of my previous employers), if you're an expert in an area you should absolutely avoid working in that area beyond one job (which would stop jumps from the USDA/FDA to Monsanto, and vice versa), if you work in academia you should avoid any funding from industry, because that is always bad! (apart from all the times that it isnt) And if you work in Industry you should probably forget about ever going into academia (probably true this, academics likely have no time for endless powerpoint slides, confusion about lack of funding, and corporate buzz words...)

There is no stark line between "public" and corporate interest anymore (if there ever was). Face it, corporations run the government. Many former corporate employees hold high positions in government agencies. The corporate influence is always there in a major way.

Juice - how far does the rabbit hole go exactly? I used to work for the NHS in the UK, does that mean that Monsanto is now being eaten from the inside by socialism? Should people who have a vast knowledge of, for instance, the regulatory framework around genetically modified organisms be only allowed to work either for the same comapny (or government organization), or should they chose to move on should the only option be to move into a completely unrelated field of work?