Saturday, September 23, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Debate over Tobacco Industry Funding at UC Has Nothing to Do With Academic Freedom; And Only A Little to Do With Research Integrity

Some opponents of a proposed policy by which the University of California (UC) would reject tobacco industry funding of its research have argued that such a policy would interfere with academic freedom on the part of its faculty members. They have also argued that rejecting funds from tobacco companies could put the University on a slippery slope that could lead to rejection of funding from other sources for inappropriate reasons.

Some supporters of the proposed policy have argued that UC must reject tobacco funding because it automatically taints the research and the research cannot possibly be conducted objectively.

Here, I argue that both of these arguments fail to hold water, and I attempt to re-focus the debate on what I feel is really the key issue.

First, why is this not a debate over academic freedom?

Because academic freedom does not include the freedom of university faculty members to accept research funding from any source they desire.

The academic freedom argument leads to the preposterous notion that a university has no right to interfere with the decision of its faculty to accept research funding from any entity, no matter how corrupt it might be and no matter how much it might undermine the basic integrity of the university.

Suppose that a researcher wanted to accept funding from the Nazi party to conduct some historical research. A group of faculty decided to protest this and urged the university to disallow this. Must the university allow the researcher to accept this funding in order to protect academic freedom? I hardly think so.

What about money being offered from the drug cartel, from a prostitution ring, from a group promoting marijuana use among children, or from a cult that brainwashes its members, some into committing suicide in honor of the cult's leader?

Obviously, there is nothing inappropriate about a university making a decision to reject funding from certain entities, and academic freedom has nothing to do with protecting the right of university faculty to accept money from any source under the sun.

The university has a vested interest in ensuring that its acceptance of funding from an entity does not destroy the integrity of, or conflict severely with, the basic mission and values of the institution.

The question, then, is not whether the rejection of money from a particular source threatens academic freedom, but whether or not the acceptance of money from the funding source would destroy the integrity of, or conflict severely with, the basic mission and values of the institution.

People may legitimately have differences of opinion about whether accepting funding from tobacco companies represents a conflict so severe that it degrades the integrity of the University and therefore needs to be rejected. But what the debate is not legitimately about is academic freedom.

Second, why does the slippery slope argument not lead to the conclusion that tobacco funding must be accepted by the University?

Because it is the University's responsibility to make the difficult judgments and decisions regarding the sources of funding for its research and programs.

If the University simply were to throw up its hands and say: "We will take money from anyone and everyone because if we reject funding from one group, we'll be on a slippery slope and may have to reject money from others," then it would abdicating its responsibility to ensure its own integrity by regulating the funding sources of its own institution.

Far from protecting the University from going down some sort of dark path, it would actually destroy the University's ability to protect its own integrity by forcing it to accept money from anyone who comes knocking at the door.

The point is this: the tobacco companies have come knocking on the door and a decision must be made on the merits of the case at hand, not based on the merits of other potential cases that could come to the door. If a decision is made to accept money based on the concern that future decisions may need to be made in the negative, then the University is essentially setting a policy that it is open to funding from anyone.

Most of us would agree that accepting money from the drug cartel would represent a degradation of a university's integrity so severe that such money should be rejected outright. And most of us would also agree that accepting money from the National Institutes of Health would not and that such money should be accepted. But between these two extremes lie middle ground where a difficult decision, in some cases, must be made. And this is precisely one of them.

If the proposal to reject tobacco funding at UC is to be argued down, then it needs to be argued down based on a demonstration that accepting such money will not degrade the integrity of the institution and/or conflict severely with the basic mission and values of the institution, not based on the argument that it somehow interferes with academic freedom or puts the University onto an unacceptable slippery slope. True, it is a slippery and difficult slope. But making these difficult decisions is exactly what the Regents are supposed to be there for. That's what leadership is all about.

Now, third, why is it that I argue that the debate is not properly one over the tainting of academic research?

Because there are mechanisms that could be used to help ensure the integrity of the research itself, and if those mechanisms are put in place, the argument that tobacco industry funding must be rejected fails.

If one is going to argue that tobacco industry funding must be rejected because it taints the research, then does not one also have to argue that pharmaceutical funding must also be rejected? There is no question that pharmaceutical funding of research can, and has, resulted in tainted research.

But most universities have chosen to deal with pharmaceutical company funding in a different way: mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the research is influenced as little as possible by the funding source. Research may be disallowed if the investigator has a financial interest in the pharmaceutical company, the companies may be disallowed from reviewing the research prior to publication or from having any say in the conduct and reporting of the research, etc.

If this were simply an issue of the objectivity of the research, then there would be no reason to have to reject tobacco industry funding outright. One could, instead, make sure that strict mechanisms were in place to ensure the integrity of the research.

The reason why I think the University of California should consider rejecting tobacco industry funding is that the acceptance of that funding tarnishes the name of the University by making it a pawn in the public relations efforts of a company that is guilty of engaging in an illegal racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud enterprise to deceive the American people about the harms of its products and which uses its funding of university research as part of its marketing of these deadly products to Americans.

In other words, I would argue that UC should reject tobacco funding not because such funding taints the research or because it makes it impossible for objective research to take place. Instead, I would argue that UC should reject the funding because by accepting tobacco money, it becomes a pawn in a public relations effort which is part of a broader conspiracy to defraud the American people and to promote a deadly product.

This I find inconsistent with the basic interests, mission, and value of the University.

My hope is that UC will make the "right" decision and reject tobacco industry funding because I do not want my alma mater to be used as part of a public relations campaign by companies that are adjudicated racketeers and that use their funding of university research to promote deadly products.

But if UC decides to continue to accept tobacco industry funding, I hope that they make the decision based on a determination that they do not feel that the acceptance of tobacco funding will interfere with the interests, mission, and values of the University by using it as a pawn in a public relations campaign to defraud the American people and promote a deadly product, rather than on the basis of the shallow argument that such a rejection of funding would represent an interference with academic freedom or put the University on an unacceptable slippery slope.

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