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Academic Freedom Could Go Up in Smoke as Universities Weigh Ethics of Accepting Research Funds from Big Tobacco


In the wake of a Florida Supreme Court ruling affirming that Big Tobacco purposely deceived the public about the dangers of smoking, research funded by tobacco companies has, understandably, become suspect. Tobacco-sponsored research outcomes are not merely grist for the rumor mill; Big Tobacco has actually been convicted of using sponsored research to defraud the public.

So what is a reputable university to do, as it scavenges the country for increasingly scarce funding of important research projects?

The faculties of several major California universities are currently in an uproar over the question, which pits the philosophical notion of academic freedom against the practical question of responsibility for millions of deaths every year. At the least, it begs the question of public perception: Is a school’s reputation damaged by association with the tobacco giants? If so, must other funding spigots be turned off at the merest whiff of negative public perception?

Stanford University came down on the side of academic freedom in May, when its faculty senate voted 21-10 against prohibiting research sponsorship by tobacco companies. Proponents of a ban said that Stanford’s “commitment to the advancement of human health” should preclude any association with an industry that kills people. Opponents dredged up the old “slippery slope” argument: first tobacco, then alcohol, and certainly oil companies, which fund the bulk of alternative energy research. (http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2007)

Regents of the University of California system teetered precariously on the tightrope of political correctness as they postponed until September a decision on this issue, vowing to “seek a compromise to maintain the university’s integrity while protecting academic freedom.” (http://latimes.com/news/local/19july2007) Meanwhile, according to the UC Office of Research, seven of the system’s 10 campuses have received an aggregate of more than $16 million in grants from Philip Morris USA.

While much of the debate is pure academic horse manure, there’s no question that this is a thorny issue. And it is not a new question. Four years ago, a New Orleans conference on Tobacco Funding and Scientific Research drew participants from non-profit organizations, government agencies, tobacco control advocates, universities and the tobacco industry. Their questions were solid, but their conclusions a bit feeble: develop policies to prevent abuses, ensure full transparency, perhaps consider a sort of “middle man” institution that would put distance between Big Tobacco and scientists.

I’m not sure that my conclusions are any less feeble. I am reminded of the perhaps-apocryphal story of George Bernard Shaw and a proper young lady whom he had propositioned. When he reduced his offer from a million pounds to a shilling, she said, “Mr. Shaw, what do you take me for, a prostitute?” He replied, “We have already established that; we are merely haggling over the price.”

If we believe that even the most reputable research institutes routinely pander to their funders and alter their results accordingly, then we have reached the height of cynicism. I am not ready to go that far. On the other hand, it is difficult not to suspect recipients of Big Tobacco handouts of complicity in the most massive and lethal public deception campaign in our history.

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