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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.

[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?


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.”


“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.”


"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.

leah kenaga April 30, 2012 at 07:09 PM
Thank you Albany Mom, Amy, Brian, Ulan and Michael for reading and replying to my post. I appreciate your responses. Thanks also for allaying my fears of writing on such a public forum as the internet, by being respectful and thoughtful with regards to your comments to me. Now I feel emboldened to actually write again. Albany Mom, thanks for your note about adding another human face to the occupation. That’s exactly what I was hoping to do when I went down to the Gill Tract on Tuesday morning - I wanted to put a face to the occupation, face to face. I was hoping I could help the occupiers see that their action does have harmful consequences. And that although they may feel they are working for the greater good, they must consider the harm that they are directly responsible for, by the means in which they have chosen to attain their ends. I believe that they could have found a better, kinder, more productive way to achieve their goal of creating an urban farm in Albany. I do want to add that when I went to the tract, I did find the occupiers to be friendly, passionate, well-intentioned folks. But I do hope they are thinking about the negative fruits of their actions.
Lionceau April 30, 2012 at 07:26 PM
Thomas, I did not mean to insinuate that the researchers are held prisoner (please!), simply to illustrate the reality of the public funding for research in academia. And unfortunately, occupying Gill Track will have no impact whatsoever on the direction of funding agencies. Sorry. And I don’t see how/why the exact research going on at Gill should be in the balance. Isn’t the occupation supposed to be about preventing UC from turning Gill Track into a parking lot? Who are you (I don’t mean you directly, but rather the occupiers and their supporters) to judge about the good and the bad of the research? I think this is what bothers me the most. That a group of people suddenly decide to take over that land and decide of its fate. Unilaterally. And start attacking the integrity and good will of the researchers using it. I totally understand (and support) the desire to save that land from becoming a parking lot or a baseball field, and would rather see is become an urban farm, but I can’t support the current occupation as it is. As just wrote Leah Kenaga, “ I believe that they could have found a better, kinder, more productive way to achieve their goal of creating an urban farm in Albany”.
Michael Barnes April 30, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Ulan, While I appreciate your honesty, I find some of what you write disturbing. Can't say much now, too busy, but here is a document you can start with from1997, before the Novartis agreement. I was a grad student at the time, and produced a paper for this report, but it looks like it is not online. Even if you only skim it, it gives you some idea of how seriously UC took questions about working with industry even before the Novartis agreement. http://www.ucop.edu/ott/retreat/tabofcon.html
Amy Marsh April 30, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Hi Ulan, it is unfair to characterize legitimate citizen concerns and opinions as "as impassioned opinions and misleading PR from forces shilling for the 1%" just because some citizens happen to disagree with you. This does not indicate an actual willingness of the Occupy folks to respond to Albany dissent. Troubling, that!
Amy Marsh April 30, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Ulan, if I understand your response to Michael Barne's question, #2, you say yes, that the Occupy folks knew they would harm the lives and work of the other researchers as evidenced by the deliberate action of keeping Altieri's workplot intact? That's a pretty staggering admittance. You guys actually made the decision to deliberately hurt workers and families, based on your assessment of their work? Wow. Are you speaking for the Occupy group in making this statement, or is this your own opinion?
Kevin Johnson April 30, 2012 at 08:15 PM
I was wondering that as well Amy, and am looking forward to his response.
Ulan McKnight April 30, 2012 at 08:43 PM
http://www.ucop.edu/ott/retreat/report2.html "With the growing involvement of industry on campus in many and varied arrangements, a broader discussion of such influence on the general quality of the entire educational experience is appropriate. Is there a shift in the balance between practical employmentfocused training and the investigation of fundamental questions?" This is exactly that question.  Thank you for the link. There is a lot to learn here. Yeah :)
Damon Lisch April 30, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Ulan, I"ve noticed that a some of what you say is half true, some is true generally but not in the particular, and some is just spectacularly wrong. I mean, as in outlandish. I'm guessing that this in unintentional and based on overheard conversations as well as uninformed assertions and wild guesses by other people that have no first hand knowledge. I'm not going to go through every single assertion that you have made, since it's pretty clear that you'll just go ahead and make more of them. But bear in mind that many of us do have first hand knowledge, and we are either lying when we say you are (spectacularly) wrong, or you don't have your facts straight. I am asking you respectfully to consider the possibility that you are letting your ideology cloud your judgement. I know, it's all for a better world, and you seem like a nice guy, so please, please take a bit more time to research your information before you post half-digested facts.
Ulan McKnight April 30, 2012 at 08:55 PM
"We are working to accommodate their personal work..." I copied that because you seemed to have missed it. We are NOT against any individual worker/researcher. Why are folks continuing to spread this falsehood? What is the poin? From the very first day we have been working with everyone involed - including all researchers affected! - to find a resolution that is a win for everyone.  We are raising the question: "What is the appropriate role of business in public education?" That is the question. We are not trying to question the role of research. We are asking why the research that is currently on Gill Tract there? Is it to forward the interests of the 99% or is it to help the 1% make even more money by conducting basic research for their commercial gain? And when we find alternatives for the researchers, Amy, are we going to hear you defending their livelihood when UC changes Gill Tract to ball fields? Will you be as upset when the UC disrupts their current plots as you are when the folks disrupting them are trying to save the last farmland in Albany?
Ulan McKnight April 30, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Amy, I apologize. Full stop. Calling legitimate Albany concerns "shills for the 1%" was inflammatory and harsh. I am sorry. Sometimes I truly lose my mind :(
Kevin Johnson April 30, 2012 at 09:10 PM
Ulan, did you have a chance to find out the names of the researchers that were there the other day and planted their 1998 saved seeds from their research that were stored in the local seed bank?
Ulan McKnight April 30, 2012 at 09:23 PM
"Who are you (I don’t mean you directly, but rather the occupiers and their supporters) to judge about the good and the bad of the research?" You are attributing an argument to us that was created by those we oppose. We do not feel we can stand in judgement of what research is good or bad.  We are questioning the role of commercial interestest in directing what research is conducted in public institutions. Would you like Home Ec classes to teacher students how to cook frys for McDonalds? Should students study data entry skills on software that only Bank of America uses? Should geneticists only get grants to work on changing corn into a monster varity that can more easily be used as fuel - even if that corn destroys our entire ecosystem? This is not about a single person (although UC has sure tried to make it about that). This is not about if one grant gets funded or another does not (again, UC has tried to make it about that). This is about a fight for the heart and soul of our public institutions. Will UC remain a steward of our land as required by their charter... or will they abdicate responsibility for educating the 99% because of contrived conditions and justify the theft of public land for the benefit of the 1%? And central to all this: Is there a role for public entities that are responsive to the public or should we do away with them completely and let the market be our only guide?
Ulan McKnight April 30, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Damon, I said it before and I meant it with all sincerity: if you would ever like to meet to discuss anything, I am happy to meet with you.  I fully admit my ideology may be getting in the way of reality. I would love for you to educate me on where I have gone astray. 
Michael Barnes April 30, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Ulan, please don't get too excited. You can go back to the Sputnik era of the late 1950s, when the federal government began pumping money into universities big time to help keep up with the Russians. All these questions were asked then about the corruption of the purity of the university research mission. Except then much of the research money was small private grants, and the 800 pound gorilla that everyone was worried about was the federal government. The fears then were similar. The feds might kill basic research, emphasize applied work, etc.
Alan Riffer April 30, 2012 at 09:50 PM
"Thomas Lord 10:18 am on Monday, April 30, 2012 Alan, earlier you admonished me to apologize for saying that Lisch's descriptions of the research were misleading. I've pointed out some reasons why I think the descriptions were misleading." That sounds to me like you are identifying intellectually dishonest behavior. "Thomas Lord 11:00 pm on Sunday, April 29, 2012 Max Lisch, thanks for speaking up. To be clear -- I'm not accusing your father of dishonesty." Perhaps it is my problem in trying to reconcile what seem to me to be two contradictory statements. But, of you don't believe he was dishonest, why do you find it hard to believe the threats to his families income? Or, if you do believe he was dishonest, why post a statement that you don't?
Thomas Lord April 30, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Alan you asked why on the one hand I'd say that Lisch's statements have been misleading or not forthright -- but at the same time I say I'm not accusing him of lying. Well, it is just so. I don't see that he has lied -- expressed any particular falsehood about the science. I also believe that what he's chosen to say about the research paints a misleadingly incomplete picture. I said as much, explained why, and gave specific evidence. As to the financial threat to his family: the world is a complicated place, the university no less so. From the point of view of protecting that family there is a specific goal: that they not suffer unfairly from a sudden loss of income. There may be many possible ways to achieve that goal to everyone's satisfaction -- but Lisch is making just one very specific demand (that the campers vacate). Are there other ways to solve his income problem? Perhaps so -- such as, for now at least, moving some of the work to Davis or some other location. The point is that since I find the account of the science misleading, I'm not sure why I should believe that the only possible way to protect the family is for the campers to leave. Perhaps there is an alternative solution being obscured by the political heat. Lisch himself has acknowledged that that's a possibility.
Amy Marsh April 30, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Hi Ulan, In this last week in Albany Patch, people either associated with the Occupy Farm or who are in support of it have issued statements which diss the corn research(ers). This includes Altieri. Are these people actually provocateurs who are in league with UC public relations efforts and trying to make the Occupy Farmers look bad?
Lionceau April 30, 2012 at 11:25 PM
Ulan, I did not copy/paste my arguments from the UC response to the occupation. It just happens that other people share the same point of view... (and many people around me and others posting here share my point of view). I will say it again, I do support what you are fighting for (like questioning how public funds are used for research in public institutions, or saving Gill from being paved all over) but I don't support the means used. And I felt I had to speak out in favor of the scientists because they are not trying to "turn corn into a monster variety". I really don't want to be disrespectful (I mean it! I want a dialog!), but saying so appears to me as propaganda aimed at making the non-informed public (since most people have no idea what corn research is) scared and see it as "bad". And I'm sure you are well aware that unfortunately, humans have been depleting our lovely planet from its natural energy supplies, and since nobody volunteer to have less babies or stop car driving, there is a huge energy crisis coming. Trying to improve some crops (not corn) to produce biofuels is one out of many options currently exploited in anticipation of that crisis. Same for plants with better yield, disease resistance, drought resistance, etc. Those don't have to be GMOs. There are ways to improve plants using traditional breeding, and research is a big allies for a more efficient breeding. And the corn research can be applied in other crops. Just trying to show the other side.
Alan Riffer May 01, 2012 at 04:10 AM
Thomas, I have an idea I like better than the ones you have mentioned - move the trespassers to 1) Davis, 2) Santa Rita or 3) anywhere more than an hour from Albany.
Pam Tellew May 01, 2012 at 05:08 AM
I've stayed out of this so far. But Thomas, in this small town, lots of us know each other. Damon and his family are our neighbors and over the years, he's told us just what a precarious situation he's in with regards to getting new funding at the end of this grant. The occupation is hurting his chances. Sure, he may be able to find a position in his field, but not around here without new funding. I do not want our wonderful neighbors to be displaced.
Thomas Lord May 01, 2012 at 05:18 AM
Pam Tellew I don't want your wonderful neighbors to be displaced either. It doesn't follow from that that the only possible solution is for the protesters to tuck tail and vacate.
Michael Barnes May 01, 2012 at 05:44 AM
Thomas, Good, some progress. What do you suggest would be a reasonable compromise?
Damon Lisch May 02, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Hi all, This will probably be my last post for awhile, as I really do have to get to work. I am going to collect my seed with the assumption that I will be able to plant at Gill. I've really appreciated many of your comments, and the response of many neighbors and friends make me deeply proud of this somewhat quirky town. In the face of an unexpected (and for many) unwelcome intrusion, most of us, on both sides of the issue, have behaved with intelligence, dignity and civility. It makes glad that I've raised my son here. That being said, I've decided it's foolish of me to try to engage in a "dialog" with the occupiers, as nice as many of them are. The point seems to be endless discussion, but on the ground the occupation continues unabated. Now I see they are planting trees. As Amy has said, lots of nice words, but actions matter. So no, occupiers, I'm not willing to answer any more of your questions. I haven't done anything wrong. But you have. It's that simple. Lofty talk about a better world means nothing if you can't get the basics right, and your willingness to ignore or trivialize the harm and disruption you have caused does not bode well for your organization. It simply isn't possible to have a reasonable conversation with someone whose actions are not reasonable, no matter how nice their words.
Kevin Johnson May 02, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Thanks Damon!
Dover May 02, 2012 at 01:08 AM
"Lofty talk about a better world means nothing if you can't get the basics right, and your willingness to ignore or trivialize the harm and disruption you have caused does not bode well for your organization. It simply isn't possible to have a reasonable conversation with someone whose actions are not reasonable, no matter how nice their words." Well said. This bears repeating.
Dee May 02, 2012 at 02:31 AM
+1 Dover/Damon
Neo Serafimidis May 02, 2012 at 06:45 AM
Yes, thank you Damon for you comportment through this affair and for this last comment. You are completely right. Trying to have a sincere discussion with an interlocutor bereft of intellectual integrity is ultimately futile and, if one keeps is up, its own kind of insanity. Let's hope we can now see the wheels of justice turn to action.
Ulan McKnight May 02, 2012 at 10:55 AM
http://www.naa.ars.usda.gov/research/projects/projects.htm?ACCN_NO=420376 I am not real sure how to read this other than to call this new plant a monster.  http://web.mit.edu/demoscience/Monsanto/players.html I guess my greater point is that UC can choose to engage in all types of research. I find it curious (and I do mean I would like to learn more) that after the 1998 Novartis deal, the research going on at Gill Tract changed to stuff directly related to Novartis and away from sustainable agriculture.  As I said before, I am learning. But what I think I see happening is alarming indeed. As far as I know, not a single researcher has come forward to publicly confirm or deny the following: 1) Are toxic herbicides (Roundup in particular) used in Gill Tract? This is particularly alarming to me as my son attended Ocean View for a number of years. 2) Did UC change the nature of the research on Gill Tract to directly respond to the infusion of cash by Novartis?  Some folks want talk about means, law and order. I want to talk about the responsibility of UC not to poison the children of Albany. I want UC to abide by its charter and educate the public - not fund research with public money for the direct benefit of private corporations. 
Brian Parsley May 02, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Actually Ulan you are forgetting about the land UC sold to the school district for Albany Middle School/Ocean View, the Buchanan extension, and City Hall/Police and Fire Department. Will you and your cohorts require the return of this land?
Tatter Salad August 10, 2012 at 11:02 PM
Damon, Your decision is correct: "I've decided it's foolish of me to try to engage in a "dialog" with the occupiers,(their) point seems to be endless discussion." They continue with specious attempt to deceive others in order to to evade accountability and sanction. They learned from the 'Occupy movement' puppetmaster Gopal Dayaneni, and author and instructor for the Ruckus Society. [bracketed statements are quotes from his training manual @: www.ruckus.org/] Their attempt to escalate the “Farm Occupation” failed, as they almost, but not quite instigated a RIOT situation. [“The artistic side of the scout addresses the visual quality of the action and the action site as a 'political performance space'] They succeeded in proselytizing locals (for farming), and will continue to harass UC, and you, because it takes little effort [“Is the 'payoff' of using a particular tactic worth the resources that it would require?”] and they WILL try to ruin your work. The bolt cutters were not brought by a farmer. UC began 3 years ago allowing the public to farm areas there; now it has become more formalized. Shall we ignore those facts too? They continue to ignore that the corn under development is for FOOD application: They ignore that there are 8-million starving in the world, half of which will die as a result, -all of them people of color; -ironic, because 'people of color' is a target population to recruit by the Rukus' Society.


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