Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Medical Journal Letter Supports UC Academic Council Resolution to Prevent Academic Units from Making Decision on Acceptable Funding

A letter in this week's issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine supports a University of California Academic Council resolution that would prevent any unit of the University from refusing to accept research funding based on the source of the funds (see my previous post for a summary of the issues).

Dr. Robert N. Jones of the Tulane University School of Medicine writes: "If a source of research funding is explicit, if the design of the study is sound and its execution and interpretation honest, and if the investigator is free to publish the results without regard to the interests of the funding organization, the only objection left is that the money was somehow dirty, soiling both investigator and institution. Glantz wants to define "dirty money" in this instance, but the mechanism could forbid support from any source that a majority of faculty can be inflamed against. It is this power that the University of California rightly seeks to curtail, on grounds that it will otherwise inevitably be used against other entities--—not only manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, but of chemicals, foodstuffs, and indeed any product that may arouse the ire of zealots."

The Rest of the Story

Jones' argument is simply not a tenable one. He is basically arguing that no matter how "dirty" a funding source is, there is no justification for an academic unit to refuse to accept funding from that source. Any such decision, Jones reasons, even if based on the sentiment of a majority of faculty members and thus representative of the majority opinion of the body (and not just the zealousness of an individual), simply represents the faculty being "inflamed" and having "axes to grind." Allowing such decisions, Jones argues, would have adverse results.

This argument is not tenable because it makes no sense. Is it really the case that a policy in which a university refuses to accept money from the drug cartel is inappropriate and unjustified? How about refusing to accept money from an organization that supports criminal activity? What about money from an organization that supports genocide? What about an organization that supports the infringement of religious rights? Or one that supports pornography or prostitution? How about organized crime? Would a faculty be described as being "inflamed" about an issue or having an "axe to grind" if it decided to establish a policy of not accepting funding from these sources?

Clearly, the issue is not whether or not a faculty and a school should be able to make decisions about whether to accept funding from a "dirty" source. The issue is simply whether or not Jones considers the tobacco industry to be a "dirty" source or not. He clearly does not, and so he views an academic unit making such a decision as being simply a matter of having an axe to grind.

But it is simply untenable to argue that the reason why an academic unit should be prohibited from refusing to accept money from a particular source is that the very act of doing so is inappropriate. That is absurd. If it were sound reasoning, then even a policy of not accepting funds from an organized prostitution network would be inappropriate.

The supposed issue of whether an academic institution can and should develop policies about appropriate sources of funding is a non-issue. It is ridiculous to assert that there are no instances in which such a policy would be appropriate. The real debate is precisely about what constitutes an appropriate policy and what does not. In other words, what sources of funding are "dirty," or in more appropriate terms - what sources of funding would directly conflict in such a sharp way with an institution's overall mission that to accept funding from such an entity would be utterly inconsistent with the institution's very purpose and function?

Jones apparently does not view tobacco industry money as being "dirty" money, Glantz does. In other words, Jones apparently does not view accepting tobacco money as being in conflict with the mission of an academic institution, while Glantz apparently does. But neither the opinion of Jones or of Glantz is relevant to the issue of whether an academic institution should be able to establish policies regarding acceptable sources of funding in the first place. They can and they must. The issue is simply: "who should make the decision and on what grounds?"

That is where the debate should properly be focused. In other words, the real issue at hand is whether it is more appropriate for the UC Academic Council (at a system-wide level) to make a blanket decision on the acceptability of funding sources that all individual academic units must abide by or whether it is more appropriate for those individual academic units to make their own decisions.

As someone who tends to favor local governance, I think it is far more appropriate for these decisions to be made by the individual academic units. And I think that each unit should be left free to make its own decisions.

The reason why this is so critical is that the mission of each academic unit is not the same. Funding sources that might be consistent with the mission of one school might not be consistent with the mission of another. So while it may not be inappropriate for a UC Business School to accept tobacco industry funding, it could conceivably be quite inappropriate for a UC Public Health School to do so. I'm not making such a contention - I'm only making the point that the decision is best left to the individual school and that I don't see any justification for the UC system to step in at a systemwide level and usurp the ability of individual schools to make this determination for themselves.

Interestingly, I don't see the integrity of the research process as being the primary criterion for decision-making on this issue. After all, one could receive money from a "dirty" source and still structure the grant such that the funding institution has absolutely no control over the research process. In my mind, that would not be sufficient to justify the grant if accepting money from the funding institution was simply inconsistent with the school's mission. In that sense, I think Jones does make a good point in focusing the debate on the appropriateness of the funding source, rather than simply on the issue of research integrity.

The rest of the story suggests that the real issue in the debate over "academic freedom" at the University of California is really not properly a debate over the appropriateness of accepting tobacco money or of the appropriateness of an academic body setting policies about acceptable sources of outside funding. Instead, the debate is really about who should set those policies and what the considerations should be that factor into those decisions.

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