When the University of California, San Diego filed a lawsuit against USC forbidding the former director of their Alzheimer’s study, Dr. Paul Aisen, from taking his research program when he relocated to USC, it asserted its right as a research institution. It insinuated that Dr. Aisen should surrender the ownership of his research to the institution in which the research is conducted. But when students enter the world of academia, they are instructed on the ethics of research and intellectual property. Stealing an idea, project or experimental result from another student is no different from stealing a book or a phone. If students are forced to practice these principles, then colleges such as UCSD should apply the same code of ethics by loosening their grip on researchers’ projects and allowing freedom of ownership in academia.
When UCSD lost 8 of its 10 sponsors — which were worth approximately $93.5 million — to USC, it was unlikely that they could continue to support their Alzheimer’s program, a clinical study with critical implications for our nation’s health. In the next 50 years, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease will be a colossal burden on humanity as we are faced with an aging population. In 2007, a group at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study projecting that the incidence of Alzheimer’s will quadruple to 1 in 85 persons worldwide by 2050. The same study also stated that an intervention to delay the onset by just one year would create nearly 9.2 million fewer cases of the disease in 2050. Because of UCSD’s financial setbacks, Aisen chose to relocate his project to USC, where the vital study could prosper under a better-funded institution.
UCSD’s hostile reaction to Aisen’s move was uncalled for, particularly since failing to relocate the program would have put the project in jeopardy. Rather than respect the director’s decision, the university lashed out against Aisen. One professor at UCSD even threatened to “have Dr. Aisen arrested, put in jail and his medical license suspended,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. But such a response is indicative of a greater menacing environment in which science cannot thrive. Moreover, this animosity sets a poor example toward students. An institution cannot preach academic integrity while failing to put its words to practice.
UCSD’s repossession of Aisen’s project represents a distorted ethical practice. UCSD claimed that Aisen “illegally seized control of data and computer systems that belong to UC San Diego,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. In fact, the project Aisen brought to Los Angeles was his own — it was UCSD that first stole the project from him. A university should not enforce a code of ethics forbidding plagiarism and stealing of intellectual property if it does not practice these laws itself. Students across the country face strict penalties for violating this code, and rightly so.
In a study as important as this, such a move will have unprecedented consequences. In an email to the Los Angeles Times, Aisen reacted to UCSD’s case saying, “We all lose here. Science and public health lose when research is torn from the investigators with the passion, knowledge and skill to assure its success.”
College students are taught the importance of attributing words or an idea to their creator. By claiming that it owned the entire Alzheimer’s study, UCSD disregarded Aisen’s role as a leader of the project and failed to uphold this golden rule in academia. When UCSD won its court case against Aisen and USC, taking possession of much of Aisen’s project, it drove a wedge between science and the scientist.