RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Will the Real Silicon Valley
of Biotech Please Stand?

Last autumn, a busload of independent family farmers was tooling through Washington, D.C., when a Wisconsinite quoted her governor as threatening Wisconsin will be "The Silicon Valley of Biotech." Farmers worry about such promises because, so far, biotech has not helped consumers and has only put farmers further in debt. Using gene-altered seeds increases per-acre costs, and requires that seed must be purchased each year rather than saved from a crop.

An Iowan on the bus challenged the cheesehead, saying: "Our governor says Iowa will be the Silicon Valley of Biotech."

Pretty soon, everyone was comparing notes. The bottom line: All midwestern governors have claimed their state would be the Silicon Valley of Biotech, meaning that all the universities in all those states would dedicate their research efforts into discovering new uses for genetic engineering.

Since the 1980 passage of the Bayh/Dole Act, universities have had the right to patent government-funded research. That means they can get money from the government for experiments, then if they find something the university can patent the finding. Patents have become an academic growth industry.

Missourians have felt for a long time that we were the Silicon Valley of Biotech, thanks to the close relationship between Mizzou and Monsanto. With sales of Roundup herbicide keeping Monsanto in business, the corporation has used genetic engineering to develop crops that survive increasingly large doses of the plant killer that wipes out every natural green thing.

Using Roundup, industrial farmers plant 1000-acre fields of soybeans, corn, cotton, or other crops, then control weeds on the monocultures by driving truckloads of the herbicide across them. Selling both the seed and the chemical is Solid Gold, like owning the hot dog stand and the antacid store.

It turns out that the Mizzou-Monsanto strategy was way behind the curve. Today's corpo-versity sets up its own businesses to market its patents.

It works like this: Universities are not-for-profit entities. Being not-for-profit, they can take money from government agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or National Institute for Health (NIH), but non-profits can't set up companies to sell the patented goods. So, to reap income from licenses and patents, universities create start-up companies. According to one study, in 1998, 132 research universities earned $576 million in royalties from their 5,000 or so income-producing licenses.

According to Dr. Bill Lacy of University of California-Davis, the top licensing university, Columbia, made $89 million last year from its 212 product licenses and 77 patents. Florida State took in $57 million from just five patents, one of which is Taxol, an anti-cancer drug that launched a start-up company.

Indeed, Lacy says at least one University (Vanderbilt) is using endowment money -- that's the money that comes from alumni to support professors or programs -- as venture capital. (We hope they didn't go into any dot-coms.)

Since passage of the Bayh-Dole act, industry funding has poured into Universities. I hasten to add that not all scientists agree that this is a good idea, and many brave souls have spoken out on this issue.

Be that as it may: In 1999, $250 billion went to universities for research and development. $70 billion was from the government and $116 billion from industry. Science budgets have soared, and bright science profs are courted with salary numbers once reserved for football coaches.

At the University of Missouri, a new bioengineering department has been inaugurated by the Colleges of Engineering and of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. "Our primary function is to look for the truth," said department chair Jinglu Tan at the launching, "That truth could be useful, it could be harmful ..."

He might have added "... to the University budget."

Some taxpayers and consumers are beginning to feel a loss of the confidence we had in our academic scientific community. For land-grant universities that are supposed to disseminate knowledge into the countryside via extension agents, farmers and consumers worry when their information is provided by people with a vested interest.

One study reviewed 800 scientific papers and found that one of three was written by a researcher with financial interest in the findings. Another study found that 96% of researchers finding positive results in an angina product had financial ties. Hurts your heart to think about it.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 1999 "Universities, colleges and medical schools received nearly three-quarters of the $12.86 billion in NIH funds awarded." At one time, awarding money to universities initiated an independent look at industry. University studies provided a supposedly unbiased evaluation of new drugs and procedures.

While citizens once felt that university studies were conducted for the social good, today's university studies are made at the pleasure of for-profit entities. At the request of the corporates, breakthroughs are kept secret rather than shared at conferences with the wider scientific community. In the future, Lacy observes, "public universities may be suing each other over patent infringement."

Rather than pursuing knowledge, with long-term deliberation and cooperation between researchers of many disciplines, university researchers now pursue profits, the quicker the better. And if something slips through and proves harmful, who pays? The corporation? or the university?

Besides losing credibility with the public, the new research agenda is dancing around environmental issues. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that buried under the University of Georgia botanical garden are "tons of leaky containers of unknown chemicals, along with the rotting carcasses of chickens, mice, rats and other lab animals dosed with chloroform and slightly radioactive tracer chemicals. When it rains, a watery tea of all this stuff oozes from the soil into the stream ... "

The article adds that Yale, Stanford, the University of Hawaii, and the University of West Virginia all have been cited by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Yale and Stanford are both on the top-ten list of royalty-producing US universities.

There are other problems, such as health dangers to university neighbors, including students, and to lab assistants working with dangerous materials and even taking pollutants home on their clothing. For parents of students, for alums, and for those who think universities should promote the social good, the association of universities with corporations is troubling.

And, when a university owns a patent, and consumers are hurt, who's left holding the bag? At this time, an international group of farmers is suing Monsanto for misleading information about Round-up Ready soybeans. In another lawsuit, 16 state attorneys general are pushing Aventis to compensate farmers and grain handlers who planted StarLink corn, which farmers did not know was restricted from human use. Banned StarLink corn has been found in human food as far away as Japan.

This marriage of research universities with corporations does not serve the public. Instead, it forces taxpayers to accept the liabilities for research that serves corporations only.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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