USC pays UCSD $50 million to settle recruitment fight

Students outside the library at the University of California, San Diego. (Photo: Stanislavsky, via Shutterstock)

The University of Southern California in Los Angeles is coughing up $50 million and publicly apologizing for its tactics in recruiting a star Alzheimer’s researcher from UC San Diego, it was reported Thursday.

The Los Angeles Times story about the unprecedented settlement described the case as an “ugly academic war.” It had the potential of bringing $340 million in research grants to USC.  

The move settled a $185 million lawsuit that at one point involved two directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, along with researcher Paul Aisen.

At the time, Puliafito and David Brenner, dean of the UC San Diego medical school, were both members of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The Times story said the “unprecedented litigation in which UC accused its private rival of repeatedly stealing away top scientists and their lucrative research grants with ‘predatory’ practices and a ‘law-of-the-jungle mind-set.'”

Aisen was a neurology professor at UC San Diego. He and his lab staff left the La Jolla school in 2015. The Times reported that the departures were secretly orchestrated by top administrators at USC.

The Times story, written by Harriet Ryan and Teresa Watanabe with additional reporting by Bradley Fikes, said, “The self-described ‘quarterback’ of Aisen’s recruitment was then dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine Carmen Puliafito, subsequently revealed to have been using drugs and partying with criminals during the time he was courting the scientist.”

At the time, Puliafito and David Brenner, dean of the UC San Diego medical school, were both members of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known. Aisen, however, has not received funding from CIRM, which has financed $56.5 million in other Alzheimer’s research.

According to the Times, the apology said that the recruitment tactics “did not align with the standards of ethics and integrity which USC expects of all its faculty, administrators and staff.”

The Times story continued,”UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla welcomed the settlement and said he was open to working with USC in the future. “‘For California and the country, it’s good that two great research universities can work on the Alzheimer’s problem,’ he said in an interview. ‘I look forward to a constructive collaboration in the future in solving other societal problems.’

“It is not unusual for professors to move to other institutions, but it is often a collegial process in which the universities work together to transfer grants and research.”

The Aisen case was not the first instance of USC researcher poaching.

The Times wrote, “In 2013, Puliafito lured two well-funded brain researchers from UCLA, outraging the state university, which complained to government regulators. USC agreed to pay UCLA more than $2 million in a confidential settlement.”

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired journalist who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report, where this story first appeared. He has published thousands of items detailing California stem cell matters.


Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: