The deal between chemicals company Novartis and the plant and microbe biologists of the University of California at Berkeley (page 29) has one benefit on which everyone can agree. It frees the academics from the endless fundraising that sometimes threatens to leave them with little time to devote to science.
This is a far from trivial consideration, but once one gets beyond it, the complications set in. One concerns Berkeley's ability to attract top researchers. Two existing staff members have not signed for the deal. Will they feel peer pressure to move elsewhere? And others might choose not to come, either on a point of principle or because they have links to another company.
This might be merely a matter of perception, but the view that Novartis is going beyond funding university research and into owning a university department is bound to take root beyond the academic community as well as within it. The next time a national committee on the future of plant science is being set up, special scepticism will attach to possible members from Berkeley. Television documentary makers wanting a talking head to comment on genetic modification of crops will tend to look elsewhere. And nobody can guarantee that Novartis will not be the next science-based company to attract serious public objection. How would Berkeley have liked having one of its major departments locked in an exclusive deal with Monsanto over the past year or two?
The Novartis-Berkeley deal only highlights in an extreme form concerns that are already urgent in other institutions. Many departments already get a large percentage of their research funds from a single source that it would be foolish to alienate.
In the longer term, the deal will provide a fascinating case study for someone's PhD on university-industry links - for example, the review committee that decides whose research is to be funded has been set up so that Berkeley's people outnumber Novartis's by four to three. But what happens if the academics propose spending a significant slice of Novartis's $25 million on something the industrialists strongly dislike? It would be an act of some courage to annoy them too much when they are the department's exclusive funders.
For Novartis, too, the deal with Berkeley will provide many lessons. The amount it is putting into Berkeley is big for a university department but small compared with the $600 million going into Novartis's own Agricultural Discovery Institute, also in California. Will Berkeley be a sideshow or the focus for the firm's most adventurous experiments? How will the deal affect its research links with other universities?
Whichever way it works out, we are likely to see more rather than fewer such deals in future. The reason is partly financial and partly to do with the other aspect of the Novartis-Berkeley deal trumpeted by both sides - the access Berkeley gets to genome databases developed by Novartis. This is data Berkeley could not obtain on any imaginable budget. Having it available should add a critical cutting edge to the department's productivity. The competition is bound to take notice.
But the same considerations do not apply in fields where data are freely available. The human genome is likely to be much more accessible to researchers than those of major food crops.
If the Novartis connection works as it should, it will produce a well resourced department whose staff are anxious to see it renewed in five years. But a better measure of its success will be how many Berkeley PhDs finish up on the Novartis payroll. A sneak look at Berkeley researchers in action could be worth more to Novartis than the experimental results to which it gains preferential access.