By Joshua Nicholson
For the 2006-07 fiscal year, the University of California as a whole received 23 grants from a single company amounting to approximately $16 million. The sum was not large in comparison to the entirety of grants received by the UC system, yet it garnered much criticism and debate, because the source of this money was tobacco company Philip Morris.
While UC Santa Cruz did not receive any of this, seven of the 10 UC campuses did, including Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.
On Sept. 20 UC Regents met in order to quell the heated debate over whether UCs should continue to accept funds from tobacco companies: and when the argument ended, the flow of tobacco funds did not.
But Dr. Bruce Margon, vice chancellor of research at UCSC, said that the Regents’ decision does not welcome tobacco funding in full.
“It would be misleading to say that tobacco research has been given a free hand at UC campuses,” Morgan said. “It has in fact been very severely restricted by the most recent Regents’ actions, far more so than any other type of research.”
The new policy, RE-89, was passed by the regents on a 14-4 vote. The policy will continue to allow funding, but as Margon mentioned, only under strict guidelines.
With RE-89 passed, all new tobacco funds will be evaluated and subjected to approval by a scientific peer review committee, as well as individual UC chancellors. The policy also calls for an annual report in which the research and funding from tobacco companies will be documented. This includes descriptions of all proposals made to the committee and the chancellor, as well as the actual amounts approved and funded.
Dr. James Enstrom of UCLA said, “I do not think that the new ‘super review’ for tobacco funding is necessary. The grant/contract procedures that have been in place at UC for decades are already working well.”
Enstrom has used tobacco funding for his epidemiologic research of tobacco-related diseases, research that he says has always been honest and important regardless of its source.
“The real danger is that the precedent of ‘super review’ will effectively block unpopular sources of funding and that will be very bad for academic freedom at UC,” Enstrom said.
Enstrom refers to an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel titled “As We See It: A Matter of Academic Freedom,” to help illustrate his own take on academic freedom. The article discusses how important it is to keep the Regents from telling researchers who they can and cannot work with.
But Professor Jonathan Samet of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is wary of the idea of tobacco funding. He said that an growing number of institutions are adopting the same policy that his own school has, which is to reject tobacco funding.
“Tobacco funding is done for its own motives, not to advance science,” Samet said.
Critics of tobacco funding argue that tobacco companies are out to influence university research, or to enhance their public image.
One such critic is Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine and the director of UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. In a paper published Oct. 16 in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, Glantz outlined his arguments.
“This shows yet another case of how the industry manipulates science, (including some work at the UC),” Glantz said.
The paper investigates over 50 million pages of tobacco documents, some previously secret and internal within the tobacco industry.
The main finding was that tobacco-funded studies had misclassified “passive smokers” as “non-smokers,” thus biasing any possible effects from second-hand smoke.
On top of that, the article also claims that tobacco-funded studies were often being published in scientific journals of which tobacco industry representatives resided on the editorial boards.
The decision to continue funding will put more pressure on the review of funding, but ultimately it comes down to the ethics of the researcher. And while the debate may be over on paper, it continues among researchers.