Taking research money from Big Tobacco

by Revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

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.