21 Aug 2014
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Gill Tract Scientists Speak Out

If occupation of the Gill Tract continues, scientists says their research and student careers will be delayed, and funding for research—and ultimately one person's livelihood—could be jeopardized.

Gill Tract Scientists Speak Out Gill Tract Scientists Speak Out Gill Tract Scientists Speak Out Gill Tract Scientists Speak Out Gill Tract Scientists Speak Out

[Editor's Note: This past week, after the occupation of the Gill Tract, some of the shared insight to their work by posting comments on Albany Patch. We’ve reprinted them here, with added background and further communications from the scientists. Read .]

Scientist (an Albany resident and parent) wrote this week:

“I know, from talking to a lot of people, that science means something scary, corporate and alienating, but that has nothing to do with what we do. Our work is paid for by you through your tax dollars (mostly through the National Science Foundation and the USDA), and the results of our research are available to everyone. As long as these occupiers sit on our field, we can't teach or make new discoveries, and that doesn't seem right to me.”

This summer there would be three scientists—Sarah Hake, Frank Harmon and Damon Lisch—planting corn in the , and they would normally be assisted by anywhere from 12 to 20 students. The students are a diverse group, ranging from high schoolers to graduate students, and coming from many different schools and colleges.

“Normally in the summer,” Lisch wrote, “I'll have one high school student through Project SEED, which sponsors internships for students from under-represented schools and one student teacher through Cal Teach, a program designed to expose undergraduates who are interested in teaching science to a working lab during the summers. I sometimes also have an undergraduate volunteer who wants experience in lab/field work.

Professor wrote:

“Every summer, I have 5-8 undergrads and some high school students help organize seed, plant, net (to protect against the crows), observe and document the genetic variations and carry out pollinations. While I believe the basic science is valuable, teaching observational and scientific skills to students is even more important.”

Frank Harmon added:

“Like all the labs that use the Gill Tract, we have a strong teaching component accompanying our research. Not only do volunteer and paid undergraduates from UC Berkeley participate, we also host community college interns from across the Bay Area as part of a UC Berkeley program to encourage first-in-family and socio-economically disadvantaged students to pursue careers in science. The students are not simply there for manual labor, but are active participants in all aspects of our research. If this group continues to hold the Gill Tract, our students will be denied this valuable learning experience.”

But, Harmon said, the students won’t be turned away this summer if the Gill Tract remains under occupation. “We’d have to try to cobble together some kind of project … but it wouldn’t be the same,” he said. Lisch, too, said he would “give them lab work instead,” if he had to.

But for graduate students, Harmon said, “A lost summer of data could set a graduate student back six months to a year in earning their degree.” There are several graduate students currently in that position.

Furthermore, Harmon explained, “If we lose this field season it will set us back six months to a year in terms of publications in preparation and the goals set for my USDA funding.”

Speaking of funding, how does that work?

FUNDING RISKS

When a government agency, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Science Foundation, awards a grant (our tax dollars) to researchers, it follows up on how that money was spent. The agency expects a report from the researcher every year explaining what was accomplished. The agency also reviews the researcher’s academic publications.

Results—or a lack of results—have an impact on whether the funding agency will award future grants to the researcher.

In Damon Lisch’s case, the loss of funding would literally hit home.

“This year is critical for me, since I'm on the last year of a grant, and to kick-start my next grant (assuming I get one), I absolutely need to set up the proper genetics now. I should also mention that I am on soft money, which means all my income comes from grants, so no grants, no income. That means that what the Occupiers are doing is directly threatening my ability to support my family.”

THE RESEARCH, EXPLAINED

“I'd like to suggest that a lot of the people involved in Occupy the Farm  probably had no idea of how much harm they were doing to our research, or what our research even is,” Lisch said.

Here’s how he explained it earlier in the week:

“I'd like to address the ‘we don't really need any corn research’ comment.”

“What is being done (at the Gill Tract) is basic, not applied research. Maize has been a model plant for many years, because it is easy to cross-pollinate and easy to grow (assuming no one appropriates your field). It also has large chromosomes that are easy to see, and it's related to all of the other grains we eat. A model organism just means one that can be used to understand other organisms.” (Emphasis added.)

Lisch explained that the researchers use the field for five months, from June 1 to November 1. After planting, netting and weeding, there’s an intense period of working seven days a week for nearly a month to pollinate the corn, then six weeks of relative downtime while the corn grows, and finally, harvesting.

“Basic research is research that may not have immediate, obvious benefits but (hopefully) will illuminate all other research. So no, we are not trying to make 'better corn,' we are trying to understand fundamental facts about plants in general. How do they grow and develop? How do they respond to light? Or stress? How do they keep their own genomes from being scrambled by endogenous (and totally natural) genetic parasites called transposons (that's what I study). Applied research depends on basic research to help illuminate the path forward, and I would suggest that it's foolish to argue that we should stop trying to understand the world around us. In fact, think it is as important for our society as urban gardens, as commendable as those are.”

"Basic research using corn as a model is different than making GMO corn to improve profits for Monsanto," he told Albany Patch. “The lack of understanding of that simple fact among at least some of the organizers ('We don't need any more research on corn because it's a monoculture') was really disappointing coming from folks that graduated from UC Berkeley.”

CAN THE RESEARCHERS MOVE?

"The trouble is," Sarah Hake said, “that finding that field space this late in the game could be almost impossible."

The much smaller University lot, at Oxford near Hearst in Berkeley, is already full, Hake said.

“I really want to emphasize that we walk and bike to the field. (The labs are at the nearby on Buchanan.) If we were to go to Davis for example (hypothetically) we would have to drive one hour each way. The students don't have cars. The close proximity is crucial.”

And, added Frank Harmon, “Ironically, this would dramatically increase our carbon footprint because we'd be commuting to Davis on a daily to weekly basis.”

Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more here on the  Gill Tract occupation.

If there's something in this article you think  , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at  albany@patch.com.

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