Here's a riddle: is the deal between U of T and a major Pentagon contractor defunct, and if it is, was it peace activists who did it in? In yet another furor over campus research and ethics, anti-militarists have been campaigning against the university's relationship with Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, which boasts it has "the most trusted name in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense.'
But in an intriguing development, once-enthusiastic university administrators now appear to be backing off the relationship. The question is why?
The story starts last December, when the press reported that Canada's National Research Council was in "active talks' with U of T and Battelle over a proposed National Centre for Biomedical Innovation at the university's Medical and Related Sciences (MaRS) "innovation' centre.
U of T president David Naylor told a reporter the university had been in talks with the company for two years and that "Battelle manages research for many institutions. They know how to do it.'
Enter a group called People Against Militarization of Life, who homed in on the company's vast military mandate. Established as a charitable trust by the will of an early steel magnate, Battelle, one of the world's largest research companies, has developed products from the photo copier to the compact disc. It also worked on the Manhattan Project in the 40s and today supplies everything from armour kits for soldiers to missile defence. But activists were particularly disturbed by reports that Battelle had developed a super-anthrax at a Pennsylvania lab for the CIA.
Why, asked PAML's Ivona Vujica, "should we have the strategic interests of the Pentagon and CIA through Battelle at the heart of our public health care and education system?'
She's alluding to the initial proposal to have Battelle manage university- and hospital-based scientists seconded to develop commercial products for the pharma industry at the proposed new facility. Vujica, a former OISE grad student, is a veteran of last year's bitter protest that helped loosen that institution's ties to Atlantis Systems Corp., a firm that sells learning systems to the U.S. and Saudi militaries.
Vujica's group isn't the only one monitoring Battelle. Revelations about its anthrax work have generated widespread criticism in the U.S. At the University of Michigan, research scientist and bio-defence expert Susan Wright points out that President George W. Bush's decision not to sign a United Nations-enforced ban on biological weapons paved the way for the firm's research.
"I consider it really immoral that Battelle went ahead and did this. The goal was to create a strain of anthrax that tolerated the anthrax vaccine. This will certainly raise concerns in Toronto. Who would want to have anything to do with this organization?"
PAML's attitude exactly. The group started an info campaign and on April 4 demonstrated at MaRS at College and University.
On April 7, NOW interviewed Peter Lewis, the vice-dean for research at the U of T's faculty of medicine. The controversy was raging and Lewis gave no hint that the partnership with Battelle was in trouble. It's true that no contract had been signed, and the National Research Council, the lead player on the project, wasn't exactly onside.
Nevertheless, Lewis said he had been to Battelle's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, to talk to company officials and liked what he saw. "We [U of T, NRC and many others] know that Battelle is expert in managing large national laboratories."
Lewis also countered the negative coverage of Battelle's military links in student newspaper the Varsity. "I believe the statements made about Battelle's involvement in bio-defence research are a distortion. My impression is of a large organization involved in a range of worthwhile projects."
But days later, things looked grimmer for the company's prospects. Dr. Roman Szumski, NRC vice-president, told NOW after our interview with Lewis that the company doesn't "have particular strength in pharmaceutical drug development. If we were looking for someone to assist with the management of drug development, we would be looking for a tier-one world-class player. I don't think they would be at the top of the list," he tells me.
When this reporter returned to Lewis at U of T for further info a week after the first interview, he said, "I think the projects we are planning with NRC have evolved over time. Battelle's expertise is now less relevant to our bio-pharma direction." Did the mandate of the project change in a few brief months - or could it be that U of T is just gun-shy about controversy?
Battelle doesn't sound particularly daunted. A spokesperson says the company has not stopped pursuing an arrangement. Rich Rosen, the company's vice-president of external business, says conversations with both bodies have been "very exploratory" and says no offer regarding its role in Canadian R&D drug development has been put on the table. Still, Battelle maintains a small office in MaRS.
"Our interest in Canada is to potentially be a collaborator, especially as some of these medical sciences laboratories emerge with the strength of the intellectual assets in Canada."
Rosen says Battelle is only interested in working with civilian applications in this country. "[Bio-defence research] is not part of any conversation."
Vujica, however, doubts these negotiations are really at an end. She says the same form of official denial also occurred in the OISE-Atlantis matter. "It's just a public relations strategy," she says.