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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  January 2005

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE January 2005

Subject:

journalism on Chapela case

From:

Robt Mann <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 21 Jan 2005 08:03:51 +1300

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (122 lines)

Enemy of the state

Ignacio Chapela was once the cream of the scientific core at Berkeley
university, California. Now he is reviled. He tells John Vidal how US
academic institutions are being 'bought' by biotechnology firms that are
backed by the government

John Vidal
Wednesday January 19, 2005

The Guardian


Eight years ago, Ignacio Chapela was a rising star of American academe; an
assistant professor of microbial ecology at Berkeley university in
California, sitting on high-level scientific committees and with the
seemingly certain prospect of career advancement and a well-paid job for
life.

Chapela, a mushroom expert, had no problem with biotech crops. Indeed, he
had worked for several years with the Swiss company Sandoz, which later
became GM giant Novartis.

But now Chapela has lost his job, is unemployable in any other top-ranking
USA university, and admits he is "extremely biased" against the industry. He
is furious with the highest levels of Berkeley, believing that it and other
major academic institutions have been "bought". The biotech industry, he
says, exerts a vice-like grip on the US government and Chapela is preparing
to spend years in the courts.

What turned this once mild Mexican scientist into one of the world's leading
defenders of academic freedom and one of the loudest critics of biotech?
Chapela, in Britain to address the Soil Association annual meeting in
Newcastle, says he gained "knowledge". Specifically, he questioned a
"donation" to Berkeley by a GM giant and then discovered that GM maize was
seriously polluting Mexico. In so doing, he has made powerful enemies.

There were several radicalisation points, he says. "One was when I was asked
to be part of a National Academy of Science [equivalent of a Royal Society]
committee supposedly looking at the scientific foundation for the regulatory
status of GM. We were being asked, I realised, to give a scientific excuse
for deregulation.

"'I have two questions,' I said. The first was about substantial equivalence
[when a new food or food component is found {sic - should read 'deemed'}
to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component];
the second was whether we could review what happens if we lost control of
the GM through, say, cross-pollination. For both, we had a big thumb's down
from the top. We were told 'thou shalt not ask that'. A reasonable scientist
should always react with suspicion to suppression."

That was the point, he says, when he decided to go to Mexico and research
the potential spread of GM maize, which was flooding over the border. He
sent a colleague, who found widespread GM contamination, with grave
implications for biodiversity. After rigorous testing, they compiled a paper
for the British science journal Nature, but even before publication a
powerful campaign was mounted against them, involving a Washington PR firm,
industry-friendly scientists in Europe and the US, and the Mexican
government. Six months after publication, Nature effectively withdrew its
support for his article. It was accused of being lobbied by the friends of
the industry, but denied it.

At the same time, Berkeley tried to stop Chapela getting his tenure (a job
for life). Despite overwhelming support by his academic peers, up to and
including the dean, he was denied it and he has now given his last lecture.
"The support was extraordinary," he says. "At least 200 people, perhaps
more, demonstrated for me."

In itself, the Mexican research was probably not enough to lose him his job.
But Chapela has "form". In 1997, when chair of a faculty committee, he
questioned the ethics of an industry offer to Berkeley from his old company,
and made many enemies.

"One of the reasons I needed to be kicked out is that I opposed a $50m
[27m] donation to the university by Novartis," he says. In return, the
company was to fund a third of all the work in the department and get a
first look at all the research papers. "I stood against it and dragged the
university all the way to the senate of California. In the end, the donation
[was reduced] to $25m [13m].

"They hate me," he says, but he cannot say exactly who because the
individuals who insisted he was fired "are anonymous, not accountable, hold
enormous power and act as a corporate body. One of these power sources is
unquestionably the biotech industry".

Chapela reckons that the industry has received more than $200bn (107bn) of
US public money over the years and should be bankrupt by now. "It should
have died three years ago," he insists. "Why is the industry still alive?
It's bleeding like crazy. The answer is that the industry is in the national
interests of the US. The state department handles it. It's not about
economic value but government [strategy]. It is built into the rightwing
agenda of the US at executive branch level."

But Chapela is baffled by the British government's support for agricultural
biotech. "I can tell what is in it for the US. I can understand Bush
[senior] and Dan Quayle thinking [in the 1990s] that it looked promising and
taking the risk, but I have absolutely no idea what you guys [the British]
are in it for."

He says the vast amounts of money put into US universities by biotech firms
is fundamentally altering the way biology is approached. No one, Chapela
says, wants to pursue the kind of research he undertook in Mexico because
they are afraid of the consequences. "But there is a growing understanding
that universities have been hijacked and the whole science establishment has
become vested in this project. Professors are now becoming entrepreneurs and
students are becoming employees. Now you get asked how many patents you hold
when you go for a job."

Meanwhile, Chapela is preparing a court case against the university that he
hopes will expose its relationship with biotech and other unaccountable
industrial funders. He believes that the biotech industry wants it: "The
industry needs to show the pain in standing up to it. It wants a case to
show its chilling influence. We have no option but to keep challenging it."

***************************************************************

Eco sounding

John Vidal
Wednesday January 19, 2005
The Guardian

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