By Clare Howard
The attorney who won a $105 million settlement from Syngenta, maker of the highly profitable weed killer atrazine, will represent a leading scientist and critic of atrazine who is accusing the University of California, Berkeley of overcharging him on laboratory fees.
The scientist, Tyrone Hayes, has been embroiled in a bitter public clash with Syngenta over his research, which shows that male frogs exposed to atrazine develop as females, able to lay eggs.
On Thursday, Stephen J. Tillery, who represented water districts in an eight-year class action suit against Syngenta, said he would represent the scientist in his current dispute with the University of California. Hayes maintains that his lab fees have gone up by 295 percent since 2004, while fees for his colleagues have risen by only 15 percent.
In an interview, Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at University of California, Berkeley, said the university withdrew the last $20,000 from his lab’s account this week, leaving him with no funding for his research. University officials advised him that because of the shortfall, his lab will close within 30 days.
Hayes said word of his lab’s impending closure came five hours after he sent a detailed letter to the school’s vice chancellor protesting what he described as exorbitant lab fees and inequitable charges by the university over the past 10 years.
Hayes has publicly questioned whether UC-Berkeley is penalizing him for his outspoken criticism of atrazine because of a five-year $25 million research agreement awarded in 1998 between University of California-Berkeley and Novartis, a parent company of Syngenta. The office of the vice chancellor said that there is no current institutional agreement between the school and Syngenta.
Tillery’s class action suit against Syngenta uncovered documents, disclosed by 100Reporters in June, that the company had spent millions of dollars on a secret campaign to discredit atrazine’s critics. The documents also showed that Syngenta had tried to dissuade Duke University from hiring Dr. Hayes.
The company did not respond to a request for comment on the funding issue facing Hayes’ lab.
John Huelsenbeck, chairman of the department of integrative biology, said he is trying to work out a resolution.
“No one wants this to happen. It’s basically a funding issue,” Huelsenbeck said. “It’s disruptive to the research, and we don’t want to see frogs with scientific importance euthanized. ”
University spokesman Dan Mogulof said Hayes’ lab is not being closed and he was unaware of a 30-day deadline. He said money was taken from his account to cover routine university charges.
“At its heart, this is a business issue. There is nothing to suggest any action against Dr. Hayes,” Mogulof said.
Each year, nearly a dozen labs at the school face a similar situation, he said. “This is happening more often due to a decrease in federal funding.”
However, Mogulof said that at one time UC-Berkeley had sought to establish a $3 million endowment to support Hayes’ laboratory.
Since this dispute became public, Hayes said individuals and organizations have expressed interest in funding his lab. He said, however, that he first wants to resolve the fees charged to his lab by the university.
Controversy has roiled over Hayes’ work for more than a decade. Recently unsealed court documents from the Tillery class action lawsuit against Syngenta Crop Protection reveal an orchestrated campaign by the corporation to discredit Hayes by commissioning a psychological profile of him, tracking him at speaking engagements, videotaping him, baiting him through emails and contacting Duke University to insure it did not hire Hayes.
Mogulof said the charges to Hayes’ lab are not excessive, and the university posts a standardized list of fees. However, that list fails to reflect discounts and other modifications that some faculty members have negotiated, Hayes said. When asked about the fees each individual faculty member pays, Mogulof wrote in an email, “That sort of researcher-specific data is never posted on the web.”
Hayes has received international prominence for his work on the endocrine disrupting effects of the herbicide atrazine, manufactured by Syngenta Crop Protection. Atrazine is widely used on corn, timber and golf courses in the United States, though the European Union ended its use a decade ago.
His findings on sexual abnormalities and on risks from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals at low levels, even below regulatory guidelines, have altered understanding of how endocrine disrupting chemicals affect animals and humans.
Syngenta has criticized Hayes’ research, and maintains research the company funded to satisfy the concerns of federal regulators was unable to replicate his findings. Nevertheless, other scientists have taken issue with the quality of Syngenta’s research.
Hayes’ history of confrontations with the herbicide manufacturer dates back to 1997 when he received funding from Novartis Agribusiness. Hayes said that when he got research results Novartis did not expect or want, the corporation refused to allow him to publish them. He secured other funding, replicated his work and released his findings: exposure to atrazine creates hermaphroditic frogs. That started an epic feud between the scientist and the corporation.
Mogulof denied that feud has spilled onto the UC-Berkeley campus and said the university does not allow funders to interfere with academic freedom. In fact, he noted that the university publicly supported Hayes when Syngenta filed an official complaint against him with the university in 2010..
When asked about that support in 2010, Hayes said he would not characterize it as help or support. He said he had complained to the university on a number of occasions, reported harassment and threats from Syngenta, and asked for help from the school. He was told the school’s legal counsel represented the school, not individual faculty members and he was essentially on his own. In light of that response, Hayes maintained his emails, the basis of Syngenta’s ethics complaint against him, were his personal business and they had not been written on the university’s computer system. The school agreed and the complaint was dismissed.
Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a not-for-profit in Washington, D.C., said “Dr. Hayes’ work is landmark, and essential to our greater understanding of chemicals at levels missed by our regulatory agencies. We need more debate and national attention on these low-dose exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals.
“He has shown the impact of exposure on amphibians, on their sexual development, demasculinization, hermaphrodism . . . serious impacts on the sustainability to our planet and life as we know it.”
Feldman said Hayes’ work was critical in showing why it is important to switch pest management away from chemicals in favor of techniques without chemicals.
“We need more funding in this area, not closing a leading lab,” Feldman said.
Hayes said his goal in writing his letter Aug. 12 was simply to ask for fair treatment from the university.
Currently, he is paying about $60,000 a year, including a materials fee, to the Office of Lab Animal Care at UC-Berkeley. The university, he said, is charging him up to 21.5 times more a day for his lab animals than some of his colleagues. He said that he and his students perform their own animal care and maintenance. Other labs that maintain their own animals are not charged this materials fee, he wrote.
In his letter to the vice chancellor, Hayes wrote that Berkeley has raised charges on his lab by 295 percent since 2004, but charges for his colleagues have risen only 15 percent during that period.
To see a tenured professor struggling to keep his lab afloat is unusual, said Emily Marquez, a staff scientist with Pesticide Action Network, an international not-for-profit. Marquez worked in Hayes’ lab when she was a student at University of California-Berkeley.
“If his animals are euthanized, the loss would be a setback not only for the scientific community but for the larger community,” she said. “He takes it upon himself to go out to the public and speak about his work. He doesn’t get any academic accolades for that.”