Effect Measure

Taking research money from Big Tobacco

The University of California Regents (their Board of Trustees) is facing a thorny issue: should researchers in the University of California system be banned from taking research support from the tobacco industry? Two conflicting imperatives, one, unfettered freedom to pursue research wherever it leads; the other, the need for some constraints. Not anything goes, even in the hallowed halls of higher learning. Let me be clear. I think the chief executives of tobacco companies are aiding and abetting, if not committing, homicide, by promoting an addiction to a fatal product for money. I favor prosecuting them fully if they have committed fraud, or at least suing them for every penny they have and then some. That said, I still don’t favor a ban. Here’s why.

First, full disclosure. My School of Public Health faced this issue a couple of years ago and we decided against such a ban, although no one on the faculty in its history had ever taken a penny of tobacco money for any purpose (at least as far as any of us was made aware). At that time I was in the majority who opposed such a ban and I still do, although I think it is inappropriate, at best, for a public health scientist to take the dirty money of the tobacco industry, especially knowing full well the purpose in giving it is to further some agenda item they have. If you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas. But the occasion for considering the question was that an anti-smoking group, The Legacy Foundation, had offered grant support to researchers if their universities would “take the pledge.” We decided to forego the opportunity, although other Schools of Public Health ad already jumped aboard with unseemly alacrity. For a School of Public Health to oppose the tobacco industry is a no-brainer. It’s in our DNA. Still.

Why oppose the ban? Because the general principle that a researcher cannot pursue research because of the source of the money seems quite dangerous to me and a dreadful precedent. Slippery slope arguments can go too far, but in this case I think it is the appropriate response. Suppose the Catholic Church decided it would withhold support for work at a university where birth control research was being conducted or supported by Planned Parenthood? The Church does, directly or indirectly, support much valuable medical research through their hospitals, parishes or neighborhoods. Or if a donor said they would not support a university that was “too liberal” or they wanted an outspoken professor fired first, no university worth its name would comply, whether or not it agreed with the faculty member (by these standards, of course, we know many universities are not worth their name, but that’s another matter). If we shouldn’t do it in those instances, why should we in this one?

The argument, of course, is that the tobacco industry is a special case:

“Nobody wants to take the responsibility for saying it’s OK to take tobacco money,” so they’re “passing the buck” repeatedly, said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco.

Glantz and others had argued that the tobacco industry has such a long track record of distorting research results that taking its money discredits the university. (Sacramento Bee)

Glantz has a point, but it’s not good enough for me to trade-off the principle for a rather small symbolic victory against Big Tobacco. Unlike our School, the UC system (which is even huger than we are, and we are very big) does have tobacco funding, 19 active grants from Philip Morris, totaling $16 million. If I were one of those researchers I’d be embarrassed, but since professors do all sorts of odious work (like weapons research) it doesn’t surprise me. Rationalizing is the stock in trade of an academic.

Tolerance can go too far, of course, but this isn’t too far for me. Where would it stop? The tobacco industry is diversified and owns many other companies, like food companies. Are researchers forbidden to take money from them, too? If not, why not?

But these are practical matters. This is a matter of principle, even if it appears to defend a murderous industry whose respect for the lives of its victims is non-existent. I am not defending them. I am defending something else. A principle.

Comments

  1. #1 Shelley Batts
    January 23, 2007

    Interesting question. As a young future researcher, I would be committing career suicide if I accepted a tobacco-funded grant. The practice of disclosure (where the money comes from) woudl ensure that it would not remain secret. This fact might come up during grant reviews bearing my name, and papers that I publish in the future. Future colleagues might be hesitant to work with me, or might look at me with suspicion. For while taking this money to use for research is a better use that going back into advertising, its still blood money to many people. People that I will work with.

    Whether or not these things are fair, it would personally discourage me from associating my name with this kind of thing. Self-interest. Cause in science, we all know that one’s name really matters.

  2. #2 M. Randolph Kruger
    January 23, 2007

    For a group that knew in the 1940’s that cigarette smoking was harmful at the least and deadly at the most I think we should find the nearest tree and ……………

  3. #3 caia
    January 24, 2007

    Wildly off-topic, but… IIRC, you once explained to us that flu couldn’t be transmitted by flies. Now an Indonesian researcher is claiming he’s found H5N1 in flies even years after a poultry outbreak in an area.

    Scientist warns of bird flu in flies.

    I’m not really sure what to make of this… whether the flies can infect birds or humans as he implies. Or what to make of his “silent” bird flu in birds discovery. (If it doesn’t cause symptoms, isn’t it low-path by definition?) Any comment you might be able to make to clarify would be appreciated.

  4. #4 Darin
    January 24, 2007

    Revere: you bring up an interesting point that I ask you flesh out more…

    You write:
    “Why oppose the ban? Because the general principle that a researcher cannot pursue research because of the source of the money seems quite dangerous to me and a dreadful precedent. Slippery slope arguments can go too far, but in this case I think it is the appropriate response. Suppose the Catholic Church decided it would withhold support for work at a university where birth control research was being conducted or supported by Planned Parenthood? The Church does, directly or indirectly, support much valuable medical research through their hospitals, parishes or neighborhoods. Or if a donor said they would not support a university that was “too liberal” or they wanted an outspoken professor fired first, no university worth its name would comply, whether or not it agreed with the faculty member (by these standards, of course, we know many universities are not worth their name, but that’s another matter). If we shouldn’t do it in those instances, why should we in this one?”

    Initially, you suggest and I think rightfully that accepting money from tobacco is bad form. Then, you suggest that any university worth it’s name would back the researcher. I’m oblivious about the political and academic research machinations. To what degree are the investigators directly tied to the grant source? To what degree are researchers beholden to their grant source?

    I am not confused about where the line is drawn. I am confused / ignorant about *what specifically* goes over the principle line drawn in the sand. Please forgive my ignorance as I’ve never lost my funding or even had funding for that matter. =P

  5. #5 revere
    January 24, 2007

    caia: I saw the “flies” report. Since there were no details it’s hard to say what to think. The question I raised last time, I believe, was not whethr the virus could be transported mechanically by flies but whether it could replicate in flies. This makes a difference because mechanical transmission by flies limits the size of the inoculum and the expoure to humans. We’ll just have to see what the data show.

    Darin: There are no hard and fast lines, here. Universities routinely behave badly regarding safeguarding their own interests versus those of outspoken researchers. I am just stating my view on what they should or shouldn’t do. Grants actually don’t go to researchers, they go to the institutions where the researchers work, although that difference is usually glossed over. However it does make the institution liable, which is an added reason why they take an interest. However to answer your question. There may or may not be a direct conflict of interest with the granting source. That depends a lot on the circumstances of the researcher and the source of funds. But there are other ways grants influence research. If a researcher is dependent on the funds, then the incentive to come up with things that will keep the money coming is increased. Good scientists don’t fudge the data, but the funding source is still dictating the research agenda, i.e., the question that is being asked. And in the case of tobacco, they are also reaping a public relations benefit by pointing to the research they are supporting. It is a complicated set of questions and I was summarizing my net opinion on it.

  6. #6 Frank Mirer
    January 24, 2007

    Demonizing the tobacco industry – and by implication more faintly damning other producers – is like calling for a ban of crocidolite and leaving chrysotile in commerce.

    This is a threefer for industry. Tobacco continues to be bought because it’s addicting. And, by over-attributing lung cancer and heart disease to tobacco, we under-attribute causation by other exposures, such as particulate matter. On top of that, industry gets a break on their pension costs, and gets to blame the victims for health care costs in the hope of shifting those costs.

  7. #7 revere
    January 24, 2007

    Frank: You’re points are well taken, but it is hard to demonize Big Tobacco inappropriately. If you are saying we shouldn’t call them what they are, murderers, than I can’t agree. Your concerns about possibly helping other murdering industries, like the asbestos industry, by concentrating too much on tobacco are a possible consequence, but smoking is a major cause of death and disability. Yet if an anti-tobacco advocate said we shouldn’t call attention to asbestos because it lets cigarettes off the hook, I would know what to say to them.

  8. #8 Aman
    January 24, 2007

    Tangentially related, the tobacco plant may redeem itself in other ways. A professor from Florida thinks he has figured out a way to manufacture cheap vaccines using tobacco as well as other crops. I am sure the Tobacco Industry will jump all over this development. Perhaps they will fund future studies. Link – http://www.indiaenews.com/america/20070124/36784.htm

  9. #9 caia
    January 24, 2007

    Ah, I get it. Thanks, Revere.

  10. #10 traumatized
    January 24, 2007

    “Rationalizing is the stock in trade of an academic.”

    ROFL!
    Perspicacious as always, Rev…

  11. #11 Frank Mirer
    January 25, 2007

    Interesting we can come to the same endpoint, which I read to be not proscribing tobacco company funded grants, and still have an argument.

    From someone closely identified with an industry who’s product, used as expected, kills 35,000 US residents a year. Not to mention what they breath. And, a union which represents workers at Miller Brewing, purchased by Phillip Morris from WR Grace, and now sold to South African Breweries [at least it's the new South Africa.]