Desperate biotech corporations are deserting academic research despite massive bailouts from our governments. It is high time to redirect public investments away from this financial and intellectual dead-end, says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho.
We predicted the demise of the biotech empire last summer (Goodbye GMOs, Science in Society 2002, 16). It is turning into catastrophic collapse since.
Syngenta staged a series of stunning retreats from funding basic research while tottering Monsanto shed its president and chief executive.
On 4 December, Swiss-based biotech giant Syngenta announced it intends to close its Torrey Mesa Research Institute (TMRI) by the end of January. TMRI is barely four years old; it has led the company's efforts to sequence the rice genome and developed the first gene chips for Arabidopsis and rice.
The closure is part of a restructuring that will bring together Syngenta and Diversa, a San Diego-based company focusing on isolating genes from microbes in extreme environments. As many as 76 of TMRI's 180 employees will move to Diversa, and 30 will relocate to Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. (SBI) in North Carolina.
Steven Briggs, TMRI's chief executive, who will go to Diversa as senior vice president of research and development platforms, sees the new partnership as "an extremely exciting opportunity", while David Jones, Syngenta's head of plant science in Basel, Switzerland says the move reflects the "maturity" of TMRI's research.
But others see the closure as part of an industry-wide cut back on research funding; it is "a big retraction", according to Chris Sommerville, plant biologist in Stanford, California.
Although reorganisation had been on the cards for a long time, a shut down was the last thing anyone expected. One senior scientist confessed himself "flabbergasted".
TMRI was established during California's technology boom of the late 1990s. The Novartis Research Foundation recruited Briggs in 1998 to direct its newly formed Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute (NADI). In 2000, Novartis spun off its agricultural arm to form Syngenta, which acquired NADI, and renamed it TMRI.
Besides coordinating the sequencing of the rice genome, TMRI developed a collection of 100,000 mutants and made them available to outsiders with certain commercial restrictions. The institute also collaborated with Affymetrix to develop a gene chip containing about half the rice genome, still the only gene chip available for a cereal plant, notes plant physiologist Russell Jones of the University of California, Berkeley. The shut down may delay the availability of the full-genome chip expected early next year.
Briggs blames the "very sombre experience" of TMRI's closure on the agricultural economy. "We've been in a state of contraction for the past 5 years," he says. "There's no indication of a turnaround ... and so there's a danger of significant reductions in research budgets, the focus has to be on generating revenues. You sacrifice your research."
Syngenta's troubles could affect other centres. Sources close to the controversial partnership between Syngenta and UC Berkeley say that their 5-year agreement will probably not be renewed in 2003 when the $25 million deal expires.
The latest retreat came only months after Syngenta announced the termination of research alliance with the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Britain that still had several years to run, and just as the taxpayer-funded Genome Centre, that was to house Syngenta's laboratory, was being unveiled.
On December 18, Monsanto's president and chief executive Hendrik Verfaillie announced his resignation, ending a 26-year career with Monsanto, citing as reason the company's poor financial performance over the past two years.
Verfaillie led the company through a merger with Pharmacia & Upjohn in 2000, which ended in the spinoff from Pharmacia earlier this year.
The company announced about 700 job cuts in April to consolidate operations at facilities in several regions in Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Monsanto has about 14,600 workers worldwide.
For the first nine months of 2002, Monsanto lost $1.75 billion, compared to a profit of $399 million a year ago. Sales for the nine months declined 19 percent to $3.45 billion from $4.25 billion.
In October, Monsanto lowered its forecast for earnings for all of 2002, citing a continued decline in sales of Roundup in the United States and lower-than-expected sales in Argentina.
Desperate biotech corporations are deserting academic research despite massive bailouts from our governments. It is high time to redirect public investments away from the financial and intellectual dead-end that biotechnology is proving itself to be.
Article first published 17/01/03
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