Dr. Paul Aisen and USC contersue UCSD over claims of denied access

Flack-wielding flacks

Paul Aisen
  • Paul Aisen

UCSD’s war with the University of Southern California over the future of a national Alzheimer’s research program is costing taxpayers plenty in legal fees. Besides lots of lawyers, the state-funded school has also deployed its costly public relations legions against the Los Angeles invader of its turf. USC and its new employee, ex-UCSD researcher Dr. Paul Aisen, asserted in an August 3 court filing that the San Diego school “abruptly and without warning cut off all of Dr. Aisen’s electronic access (email, phones, servers) to the university systems.

According to the complaint, “Dr. Aisen relied on the university electronic systems for many aspects of his practice, including the determination and adjustment of doses of experimental drugs to clinical patients. By revoking his access, [UCSD] interfered with Dr. Aisen’s physician-patient relationships, compromised patient safety, and threatened the academic integrity of the research.”

“That is not true,” UCSD Health’s media relations official Jackie Carr told Science Magazine. Carr, employed by the university’s public relations operation as a public information senior supervisor, pulled down gross pay of $104,536 in 2013, according to numbers posted online by the University of California. In addition to refuting Aisen, Carr has produced news releases with titles including “Underappreciated Cause of Bowel Obstruction Should Be Included in Surgical Assessments,” and “UC San Diego Health Ranks #1 by U.S. News & World Report.”

In addition to Carr, there are five others on UCSD Health’s “press team,” according to its website. Ex–Union-Tribune science reporter Scott LaFee, now director of media relations, was paid $116,884 last year, according to university data. Senior public information officer Michelle Brubaker got $77,146; public information officer Yadira Galindo got $75,530. Senior public information officer Heather Buschman, was paid $13,405 during the year, according to the data; the salary of public information officer Bonnie Ward is not listed. UCSD Health’s public relations operation supplements the university’s main PR office, headed up by Clare Kristofco, associated chancellor and chief of staff, who in 2014 was paid $266,025. Marketing, media, and public affairs chief Jeff Gattas received $166,131 last year.

USC’s counter-complaint in the Aisen case alleges a myriad of UCSD overhead abuses. The school “pressured Dr. Aisen to move [the Alzheimer’s program] to the UCSD campus so that UCSD could collect indirect costs of up to 55 percent, a move which would have crippled the program financially by diverting too much grant funding from research projects into UCSD’s Administration.” In addition, Aisen was told, “the contracting department was insufficiently funded and could not keep up with the volume of work.”

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Matt, how about some similar scrutiny of the USC flacks? That school has been very good at self-promotion for decades. We can suppose it has a staff of well-paid, heavy-hitting publicity gurus, too.

This sort of public fight can do nothing but increase skepticism (or cynicism) of academia and medical research in particular. Someone here definitely violated the usual compact that governs the handling of big-stakes contracts. It's hard to be certain, but USC's hands don't look clean. But then again, it is awfully hard to follow some of the events on the UCSD campus and see that school as the one in the white hat.

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