MU’s life sciences programs draw fire

Progressive groups say the school has “sold its soul” to agribusiness.
Wednesday, April 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:34 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

While MU celebrates its second annual Life Sciences Week, students and community members say the university’s “obsession” with life sciences is a bad idea.

Students for Progressive Action is challenging MU’s top priority and says the university uses public money to promote corporate culture, misallocates money and fails to address ethical and social questions raised by biotechnological and genetic engineering research.

“The whole campus is paying for expensive research that is going to benefit a few,” said Sarah Bantz, a recent MU graduate who completed her master’s thesis on corporate-funded research.

Bantz joined SPA members and representatives from the Sierra Club and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center on a campus tour Tuesday to protest MU’s push for genetic engineering research in agriculture.

In a recent publication called “Mizzou, Inc.,” SPA argues that MU and the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources interpret the land-grant mission of providing education and scientific discoveries to the state in a narrow way by “acting as a product-development service for multinational agribusiness companies.” The four-page publication, which unfolds into a map pinpointing agriculture-

related research efforts on campus, was produced by SPA and the Polaris Institute in Canada, a group that supports social movements against globalization.

In an e-mail Tuesday, MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said MU research officials are careful in acknowledging all Missouri citizens — corporate or otherwise — when doing research, teaching and outreach. She added that current campus research will develop “cheaper, more efficient and less hazardous ways to increase agricultural productivity of both plants and animals.”

“This will benefit organic farmers, family farmers and agriculture in general,” Banken said.

Life sciences research is an interdisciplinary approach to improve food, health and the environment. The concept is resurgent because of developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering. Life sciences is considered a “strategic goal” on the MU campus, where a $60 million Life Sciences Center — dubbed “the fortress” by SPA members — is slated to open in the fall.

Bantz said she has three concerns with MU’s current direction: Money is poured into life sciences research at a time when the university is facing serious budget cuts, discoveries are marketed to private companies, and there is a lack of research that would benefit farmers across the state.

Julia Schafermeyer, a student at Stephens College who has been working with SPA, said the university cannot advertise life sciences research as an economic boon without addressing the concerns of farmers.

Bryce Oates of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which represents more than 5,500 families, said farmers are losing market access because they cannot compete with large corporations. Banken said the decrease in the numbers of independent farmers is troubling to everyone. She added that MU scientists only propose research projects that are beneficial to the field, the state and the nation.

Both Schafermeyer and Bantz said students are trying to start a public debate about life sciences research at MU.

SPA accuses the university of measuring success by the number of patents and start-up companies produced by research. “Few patents actually succeed in the marketplace and few start-up companies ever become viable,” the “Mizzou, Inc.” publication states.

According to MU’s latest research report, the university had 87 patent applications pending in the 2003 fiscal year. In the past four years, MU secured about 200 intellectual property licenses. MU officials said the only way people would benefit from MU’s inventions is if they were turned into viable products.

“That is often best done by the private sector,” Banken said.

Ken Midkiff of the Sierra Club’s Ozarks Chapter said MU is not a unique case in the country.

“Every land-grant university in the United States has sold its soul to major agribusiness corporations,” said Midkiff, who joined the tour.

Oates, who graduated from MU five years ago, said he received a “top-notch” education at MU but is worried about the direction the school might be taking because of narrowing its focus.

“They have lost the ability to distinguish between what’s good for farmers and what’s good for corporate agribusiness,” he said.

Oates said MU decided to back biotechnology, thus putting the future of the university on the line.

“We are well behind the curve,” Oates said. “And we’re not going to catch up.”

He said that most jobs would go to states that invest more in this industry and that taxpayers’ money is being wasted by the current push.

MU was ranked 111 out of 150 universities in National Institutes of Health funding for fiscal year 2001. The ranking is largely driven by the medical schools on those campuses, said Jim Coleman, MU vice provost for research. Medical research is not an area in which MU has invested heavily, concentrating life sciences efforts on its strengths: plant genomics, comparative medicine and nursing.

In recent years, there has been a national increase in money available for life sciences research. Speakers on the tour said legislators are repaying private companies for supporting their campaigns by directing federal and state money toward research these corporations could benefit from.

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