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USC settles research poaching case for $50 million and an apology

By David Schwartz
Published: July 9th, 2019

The University of Southern California has agreed to pay the University of California $50 million and apologize for stealing away a star Alzheimer’s researcher – and huge cache of research funding — from UC-San Diego.

In a settlement that ends a bitter dispute between the two schools. In its apology, USC said it regretted the way neurology professor Paul Aisen and his lab staff left UC San Diego in 2015, departures that were secretly coordinated with high-level USC administrators.

“These actions did not align with the standards of ethics and integrity which USC expects of all its faculty, administrators and staff,” the apology stated. “USC is committed to, and wants to be known for, ethics, integrity and the pursuit of academic excellence, and it has already implemented sweeping changes to this end,” the university said.

The settlement comes as USC is attempting to emerge from a series of scandals that culminated with the departure of president C.L. Max Nikias departing last year. Nikias had focused heavily on raising USC’s reputation by recruiting big-name researchers and their funding from other institutions.

Scores of so-called “transformative faculty” were lured to USC during Nikias tenure, often with perks that cash-strapped public institutions struggled to match, including huge pay increases, million-dollar housing loans, and new facilities.

It’s common for professors to move to other institutions, but it is typically a collegial process in which the universities work together to transfer grants and research. Over several years, UC became convinced that USC was crossing ethical norms by targeting academics based on grant funding and strategizing covertly with scientists and their lab employees about moving research money.

In the case of Aisen’s lab, UCSD said USC hired away a large group of researchers at one time, tried to deny access to the Alzheimer’s data they had produced over the years, and bypassed the established process for transferring grants to new institutions.

The research group Aisen headed, the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, was a point of pride and revenue for UCSD, with expected funding of more than $340 million at the time USC approached him.

The lawsuit that UC subsequently pursued in San Diego Superior Court — and is now settled with this agreement — is believed to be the first time a university has sued another over faculty poaching. UC was seeking damages of $185 million as well as a punitive award that could be several times that.

Dr. David Brenner, UCSD’s vice chancellor of health sciences, said the dispute was not about Aisen individually. “We lose people all of the time,” Brenner said. “This was about how USC sabotaged our program.”

Aisen has continued to work in San Diego, but in a new organization created by USC for him, known as the Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute.

Source: Los Angeles Times

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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