Legal Battle Highlights USC's Plans To Expand Into San Diego Science
Last month, a prominent Alzheimer's scientist resigned from UC San Diego and wound up in court. UC San Diego officials said they had to sue to prevent him from hijacking a major national research project and taking it to his new job at the University of Southern California.
The resulting lawsuit has highlighted tensions over USC's attempts to expand its research footprint in San Diego.
The legal fight has focused on control of the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study, a project that aims to find new Alzheimer's drugs by collecting data from clinical trials across the country. UC San Diego has run the ADCS since its founding in 1991.
Paul Aisen was its most recent director, until he resigned in June for a new position at USC.
UC San Diego lawyer Dan Sharp argued in court last week that Aisen planned to take the entire ADCS project to USC without UC San Diego's permission.
"These were not negotiations over recruitment of a single faculty member," Sharp said. "They were negotiations to take the entire center and all its grant funding."
It's not unusual for scientists to bring research projects from one institution to another. But UC San Diego Dean Gary Firestein said the ADCS is too big to move.
And he said Aisen and USC botched the departure.
"We've been involved with transfer of large grants and programs, in a collegial manner, for years and years," Firestein said. "In this case, they crossed a line in the sand."
UC San Diego officials claim Aisen resigned with little warning. They allege he conspired with other departing colleagues to move the central ADCS computer database into a personal Amazon Cloud account, locking UC San Diego out of a program it rightfully owns.
"The most striking event that occurred was the migration of all of the data into a personal account," Firestein said. "That is essentially unheard of. It is not something anyone would've imagined a faculty member would do."
Aisen claimed UC San Diego could still view the database, but UC San Diego said Aisen left them unable to control it. Last week, a judge ordered the database be returned to UC San Diego.
Prior to the judge's decision, Firestein described UC San Diego's access to the database.
"We can see that things are happening on it, but we are not able to operate it. It's very similar to someone stealing your car and saying that you can look at it whenever you want to, but you can't drive it," Firestein said.
USC did not grant an interview for this story, neither did Paul Aisen. But in court papers, Aisen says UC San Diego did not properly support the program. He says the university's excessive bureaucracy hampered his ability to run the ADCS.
In court, USC attorney Glenn Dassoff said Aisen took the database to USC in the best interest of Alzheimer's research. Dassoff argued the database should not be returned to UC San Diego.
"They're not competent to run it," Dassoff said.
This is not the first time USC has tried to expand its research footprint in San Diego. Last year they tried to acquire the well respected Scripps Research Institute. Staff there ousted Scripps President Michael Marletta after catching wind of USC's plan, and USC did eventually back out.
"It seemed very odd to us that no one at USC got in touch with us at all," said Jeanne Loring, a Scripps stem cell scientist.
Loring said it was that secrecy that led faculty to reject USC's plan. She welcomes USC's efforts to invest more in science. However, the school's reputation was an impediment to winning over faculty at Scripps, she said.
Loring recalls what one of her graduate students said when they heard Scripps might soon be affiliated with USC.
"They said, 'I don't want to graduate from USC. It's not as prestigious. I want to graduate from Scripps.' I thought that that was a pretty strong feeling among many people in San Diego," she said.
USC has now successfully added a top Alzheimer's scientist to their staff. But following the judge's decision, it lost control over the major Alzheimer's research database he once managed.
The trial is ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether UC San Diego will be awarded monetary damages over Paul Aisen's resignation.