Shakin' it for the Man?
Does BREI want to explain biotech (or sell it)?
By Alex De Grand

Imagine shopping for a computer, as lost as a Gilligan's Island cast-away in the techno-jargon jungle when suddenly, out from behind that row of discounted Playstations, comes Bill Gates!

Gates says computers are such an important part of the world today, he'd hate to see someone make the wrong purchase. In soothing words, Gates' explanations make technology seem less of a mega-byte in the ass.

But, wait! Can Gates be trusted? Even when he isn't pushing his very own product, he has a stake in seeing the overall industry do well.

On the other hand, Gates sure knows a hell of a lot more than that goofy kid who transferred in from housewares last week.

In a similar way, consumers might scratch their heads when a group of researchers at the University of Kentucky offer to explain biotechnology to the masses. Their webpage, found at was launched earlier this month.

In a world that has seen tomatoes modified with fish DNA, the need for such an educational resource is obvious.

"It's certainly been said the public is being handed a new technology without being educated [about it]," said Dr. David Hildebrand, co-chair of the project known as the Biotechnology Research and Education Initiative (BREI).

But while their credentials seem more than up to the task, a number of these scientists do the research that goes into advancing biotech and occasionally receive grants from those corporations selling the finished products. Can they be trusted?

"Some committee members have received funding from biotech industries," Hildebrand acknowledged. "But most have not... For those who have, I'd be pretty confident none would say what the companies want them to say."

Hildebrand emphasized BREI is only intended to help people learn more about the science so they can make up their own minds. It's not for selling the technology, he said.

And of all the possible sources of information, it's the contention of BREI co-chair Valerie Vantreese, that universities are probably more trusted than other sources such as industry, grassroots organizations or the government.

But there is a growing concern the university's ivory tower might have become a little less lily-white.

During Green Party presidential candidate and consumer-rights czar Ralph Nader's visit to UK in April, some of his biggest applause came when he opened fire on the school's relationship to industry.

"Corporations like Nike have their hooks in this university," Nader declared.

And while the marriage of commercial interests and collegiate athletics is well-known, there are similar trends occurring in academics.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 allowed universities to patent the results of federally-funded research.

That law, in addition to other changes allowing patents on living organisms, has radically altered the nature of university research, according to Gabriela Flora, a program associate in agricultural biotechnology for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Lots of information that previously would be public domain is now patented, she said. The trend runs counter to the scientific principle of free inquiry and sharing of information.

"Talking to academics in research, they say professional meetings are much less informative than they used to be," Flora stated.

One of the most infamous incidents illustrating Flora's point can be found at the University of California at Berkeley.

That school signed a deal in 1998 with Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company that also produces genetically-engineered crops. Under the agreement, the company gives the school's department of plant and microbial biology $25 million for basic research in exchange for the first right to negotiate licenses on about a third of the department's discoveries. Those rights extend not just to discoveries funded by Novartis but also by state and federal sources.

Novartis was also granted two of the five seats on the department's research committee that determines how the money is spent.

Flora argued, less extreme than the Berkeley deal is the quiet influence of private money directing resources toward large agribusiness interests at the expense of smaller projects. Alternatives to biotechnology are likely to be squeezed out, she said.

Yet, it is unfair to say all university scientists are working hand-in-hand with the corporations making grants to their schools, Hildebrand said. He noted tobacco companies paid schools a lot for the research into their product, research that ultimately showed how smoking is dangerous.

Hildebrand also argued people shouldn't be so hasty to disqualify scientists because they received private grants in the past.

In the late 1970s and 80s, Hildebrand said, the British government told universities research that couldn't attract support from the private sector was certainly not worth the continuing public expenditure.

But years later, Hildebrand continued, when the British looked to assemble panels for studying food safety issues, it found itself in a bind. Most of the best scientists to serve on these panels had received industry money, as ordered by the government, and critics objected to them as being "compromised."

Dr. Scott Smith, the assistant dean for research in UK's College of Agriculture, estimated the ag college receives about $7 million a year in grants and about 20 percent of them are from private industry. Government and commodity groups are among the other grantmakers.

Hildebrand said UK has rules governing the kind of private money it accepts. Grants have to fit the mission of the school.

Further, Hildebrand said, except during the short period of time leading up to a patent, UK makes its research public.

Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 (ext. 232) or


Shout! Shout! Let it all out!

With all the protesting, chanting and shouting going around Lexington these days, you might think it's the Prague Spring or something. Keep an eye peeled for rolling tanks.

The Kentucky Education Association, the Fayette County Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers organized a rally June 16 in front of Rep. Ernie Fletcher's office on Harrodsburg Road to denounce the sixth-district Republican congressman as a cheapskate on education spending.

These groups charge Fletcher voted to slash funding for the 100,000 Teachers Program, the Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, and a number of other initiatives. The groups complain Fletcher ultimately voted for block grants that are too small to adequately fund these programs.

Fletcher's office laid low during the verbal barrage, but the congressman's spokesman in Washington D.C. denied the charges and said the protesters are unhappy that Fletcher is taking power away from "the Washington bureaucrats."

"Ernie has a solid record on education," said spokesman Wes Irvin. "We're standing behind it."

Meanwhile, GTE workers seeking a new contract with management, picketed June 16 at the GTE office at Regency Center and again June 20 at the GTE location at 318 Main Street.

Negotiations between GTE and the union resume June 27. The union reports sticking points include company proposals to cut pay for service center employees who work at night and technicians who answer calls after hours as well as the amount of work contracted outside the company.

In the words of those political pundits that go by the name Twisted Sister, "We're not gonna take it anymore." - ADG

Give 'em a shout

If Congress doesn't get their act together and renew the Violence Against Women Act, funding could be cut off by October of this year. The Act is supported by the National Association of Attorneys' General, a host of grassroots groups, and sheriffs' departments across the country (including in Fayette County, where Sheriff Kathy Witt has been vocal about the need for funding to support extra deputies, who serve emergency protective orders, along with additional programming).

Given Kentucky's checkered history in domestic violence (complete with several high-profile homicides), and the way the state has pulled itself together to create model programming, Kentucky's reps in Congress need to get behind renewal of this Act.

Rock me, Al-adeus!

Sure, it's pretty cool Vice President Al Gore pulled into town June 20 for a little flesh pressing in the "Horse Capitol of the World" (see, all that money Pam Miller wants to spend promoting the town as Horsey-land, USA is already kicking in). But at the same time, it's like having a nice uncle stop by. Pleasant, but not that electrifying. Not like when your bad-boy cousin tears up the street and onto the lawn with his spit-shine Camaro, wanting to visit the titty bars while out on parole.

Robotic, overused lines from Gore just don't get the pulse racing. His promise that economic good times will continue if he's elected president rendered in a wooden tone -"I'm here to tell ya, You ain't seen nothing yet." - just doesn't bring the house down.

Please, Mr. Vice President, do something to punch it up!! Voters can't pull that donkey lever if they're asleep.