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
Wednesday January 19, 2005
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
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 US 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
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 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."
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