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Syngenta Abruptly Abandons 50M Crop-Research Project with John Innes

NEW YORK, Sept. 19 - Syngenta has abruptly backed out of a major crop research  project with the John Innes Centre, the institute said yesterday.


The sudden decision terminates a broad-scale research partnership begun in 1998 to develop new crop-genetics tools and improve wheat varieties. Syngenta, then one part of AstraZeneca, pledged £50 million, or roughly $78 million, over 10 years to the alliance, including underwriting the construction of a £13 million genome research center.


It will be a significant financial blow for JIC, although not a catastrophe. The institute's annual R&D budget ranges between £25 million and £27 million, and the Syngenta partnership brought in about £1 million in research funding each year. Most of JIC's cash comes from government and charitable sources.


Losing that funding will be something of a hardship, said John Innes spokesperson Ray Mathias. But the "real disappointment," he said, was the early death of an innovative research partnership that teamed institute researchers with corporate scientists in an effort jointly develop new tools and techniques for crop research.


The new genome center, which opened earlier this year, was slated to house up to 40 Syngenta scientists. Fourteen Syngenta researchers had already moved in.


"It was a new and innovative way to try to encourage the takeup of scientific discoveries coming out of the public sector by commercial organizations," he said. "It was an experiment in knowledge transfer--and that's one route for knowledge transfer that is now closed to us."


The broken partnership is a casualty of the 2000 merger between AstraZeneca and Novartis that formed Syngenta. The reorganized crop-science company said it needed to "eliminate overlap of expertise and resources," according to a statement from JIC.


Syngenta's move came as a surprise to JIC researchers, who found out about the decision Tuesday morning, Mathias said.


Administrators at the research center are currently negotiating with Syngenta over the termination. Mathias said that under the terms of the 1998 agreement, projects already underway would be funded through their "natural end." For some, that would mean continued funding through 2004.


With more than 850 researchers and staff, the John Innes Centre is a major center for plant research in the UK.

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