New Plan to Limit Tobacco-Funded Research

Compromise proposal emerges at U. of California, with regents' vote scheduled this week -- but critics still see potential infringements on academic freedom.
September 18, 2007

After nearly a year of discussion, the University of California Board of Regents plans to return this week to the question of whether its researchers should conduct work financed by the tobacco industry. Some regents have offered a compromise plan that would allow such research support, but subject it to tougher standards of review than other grants. The compromise would also allow individual units within the university to adopt bans on accepting tobacco funds for research.

The proposal follows several attempts by some regents, along with anti-tobacco professors, to push for a complete ban on research support from tobacco companies. They argue that the tobacco industry's record with regard to distorting research and causing harm to health is so egregious that taking cigarette profits tarnishes the entire university. The university receives only minimal funding from the tobacco industry -- 23 grants for a total of $16,647,661 in the last academic year, a blip in terms of the university's massive research operation. All of the funds came from Philip Morris.

But to the critics of the research, the issue is one of principle. And opponents of measures to limit the research say they too are arguing on principle. Limiting research support based on the source of the funds amounts to a violation of academic freedom by limiting professors' ability to do research, they argue.

Whether the new plan has moved far enough to win Thursday's vote remains to be seen. The university's Academic Senate has not taken a stand on the compromise plan but in May overwhelmingly voted to oppose an outright ban on research support from the tobacco industry. Research vice chancellors in the system have lined up against the new proposal. But regents who have been pushing the issue are believed to have been trying for a plan that could gain enough support to pass.

One part of the new plan would authorize individual academic units to seek the approval of the Board of Regents for a ban that applied only to their unit. Such a request would have to have the support of a majority of Academic Senate members affiliated with the unit. The idea is that if there is a broad consensus within a school of public health to support a total ban, the board might be more likely to agree if such a ban wasn't blocking professors in other divisions from doing their work.

For all researchers in the system, the plan would require that a scientific panel be created to review proposals and to determine if "a proposed study uses sound methodology and appears designed to allow the researcher to reach objective and scientifically valid conclusions."

The American Association of University Professors has opposed proposed bans on tobacco research. The AAUP's policy on the issue states: “As a practical matter, the distinction between degrees of corporate misdeeds is too uncertain to sustain a clear, consistent and principled policy for determining which research funds to accept and which to reject. An institution which seeks to distinguish between and among different kinds of offensive corporate behavior presumes that it is competent to distinguish impermissible corporate wrongdoing from wrongful behavior that is acceptable. A university that starts down this path will find it difficult to resist demands that research bans should be imposed on other funding agencies that are seen as reckless or supportive of repellant programs.”

Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom issues for the AAUP, said that the changes in the the proposed policy in California did not go far enough to make it acceptable. Having a special panel review research supported by the tobacco industry "will open the door to angry, and perhaps even bitter, wrangling about the criteria for evaluation, the composition of the committee, appeals against decisions seen as unfair." More important, he said, such a panel "will be viewed as an attempt to achieve indirectly what cannot be obtained through direct means -- banning research funded by the tobacco industry."

As for the idea that individual academic units, based on a faculty vote, could seek to ban tobacco funds from their areas, Knight was also unimpressed. "The threat to academic freedom posed by a regental ban of research funded by tobacco companies does not disappear because a faculty body votes in favor of the ban. The threat remains undiminished."

A letter on behalf of the 10 vice chancellors for research at the university system's campuses made similar arguments. (The letter is the last of the documents that can be found here.) The letter said it would be fine for the regents to express concerns about tobacco-financed research or to urge that professors be diligent when doing such work. But the letter urged that most of the compromise plan be rejected, arguing that "restrictive rules and regulations" would "stifle academic freedom, create an unneeded bureaucracy, and be contentious and divisive to our faculty."

But Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of cardiology at the University of California at San Francisco and a leading foe of the tobacco industry, said that the compromise proposal was "watered down" and would be worth passing only because of the opposition to a complete ban. He noted that many believe all professors are judged by the complicity of a university with the tobacco industry. He has argued repeatedly that the issue should be viewed less as a matter of taking money from an unpopular group (the tobacco industry), but as taking money from a group with a specific agenda of encouraging unhealthy behaviors (smoking) and finding research to legitimize that goal.

Glantz also scoffed at the idea that the debate is about academic freedom. Speech is what academic freedom is about, he said, and nothing in the various proposals would bar a professor from doing research of any sort on tobacco or taking any stance on tobacco matters. They would just have to do their research without tobacco industry support.

"The definition of academic freedom which seems to be operative among the administration and the systemwide senate seems to be getting money," he said. "They are like politicians chasing campaign contributions."


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