By Paul Basken, 14 August, 2013. Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
The University of California at Berkeley cut laboratory financing this week for a professor who has complained for years about corporate-led retaliation [http://chronicle.com/article/The-Price-of-Research/21691/] for his association of health risks with a widely used herbicide.
“We’re dead in the water,” Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor of integrative biology, said Tuesday after being told by his department chairman that the account containing his laboratory funds—needed to pay for basic functional operations, such as the care of test animals—had been frozen.
The chairman, John P. Huelsenbeck, confirmed that Mr. Hayes has had his research activities “paused,” though he said he couldn’t provide details, and a university spokesman said he was unaware of any formal punitive action.
The episode marks the latest chapter in a long-running saga dating back to 1999, when Mr. Hayes, working on a contract for Syngenta, found the company’s herbicide atrazine might be inhibiting the sexual development of male frogs.
An article [http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2013/atrazine] published in June by Environmental Health News cited company documents as showing that Syngenta spent several years and millions of dollars on a campaign to discredit Mr. Hayes and other scientists involved in the matter. The article says the company’s efforts included contacting Duke University, which shortly afterward withdrew a job offer to Mr. Hayes. (Environmental Health News is a nonprofit news organization founded by John Peterson Myers, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.)
Mr. Hayes said he believes some Berkeley officials, including Graham R. Fleming, vice chancellor for research, may have joined in efforts to penalize him out of a desire to protect a $25-million, five-year research agreement between Berkeley and Novartis, a parent company of Syngenta.
Mr. Huelsenbeck referred questions about this week’s action against Mr. Hayes to Mr. Fleming. Mr. Fleming declined a request to comment, referring questions to a university spokesman, Dan Mogulof, who denied any action by Berkeley to interfere with Mr. Hayes or his work.
“Nobody has taken any action against his lab,” Mr. Mogulof said.
Dispute Over Fees and Frogs
The situation is complicated by the fact that, along with his controversies involving Syngenta and atrazine, Mr. Hayes has been a longstanding critic of Berkeley’s fees for laboratory care. He said the university acted to force the effective closure of his lab just hours after he sent a letter on Monday to Mr. Fleming detailing his contention that he, in particular, is charged far too much for the care of his laboratory frogs.
Mr. Hayes said in the letter that his daily fee is more than 21 times larger than that paid by a Berkeley colleague, Richard M. Harland, a professor of genetics and development, who uses the same type of frog.
But Roger A. Van Andel, director of Berkeley’s Office of Laboratory Animal Care, which provides the care and sets the fees, faulted the analysis and denied any discrimination against Mr. Hayes.
The fees are based on a variety of factors, including the size of the tank needed for the type of frog, Mr. Van Andel said. Mr. Harland does use some of the species, Xenopus laevis, used by Mr. Hayes, and in those cases he pays about 45 percent more, because of an arrangement in which Mr. Hayes uses his students to care for the animals, Mr. Van Andel said.
As for the action against Mr. Hayes, Mr. Mogulof said Mr. Fleming has no idea of what might be causing a financial shutdown of Mr. Hayes’s lab, but suggested the possibility that he simply ran out of money.
Mr. Hayes denied that, and said the crisis was threatening the health of thousands of his test animals, as well as his research into questions such as the variability of the effects of estrogen on different species of frogs. Those questions could help scientists answer important questions about how potential carcinogens could affect humans, and about the possibility of wide variations in effects depending on racial differences.
Mr. Huelsenbeck said he could not comment on the possibility of retaliation involving Syngenta and atrazine, but expressed sympathy for Mr. Hayes and his concerns about the costs of animal care at Berkeley.
“The situation is complicated,” he said. “Personally, I feel it is a tragedy that his program is paused.”