The Situation of University Research
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 22, 2008
Today’s New York Times includes a terrific article, titled “At One University, Tobacco Money Is a Secret,“ by Alan Finder who describes how the tobacco industry continues to situationally manipulate the marketplace of ideas. We’ve excerpted a few excerpts from the story below.
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On campuses nationwide, professors and administrators have passionately debated whether their universities should accept money for research from tobacco companies. But not at Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution in Richmond, Va.
That is largely because hardly any faculty members or students there know that there is something to debate — a contract with extremely restrictive terms that the university signed in 2006 to do research for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company and a unit of Altria Group.
The contract bars professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If “a third party,” including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company. Nearly all patent and other intellectual property rights go to the company, not the university or its professors.
“There is restrictive language in here,” said Francis L. Macrina, Virginia Commonwealth’s vice president for research, who acknowledged that many of the provisions violated the university’s guidelines for industry-sponsored research. “In the end, it was language we thought we could agree to. It’s a balancing act.”
But the contract, a copy of which The New York Times obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information law, is highly unusual and raises questions about how far universities will go in search of scarce research dollars to enhance their standing. It also brings a new dimension to the already divisive debate on many campuses over whether it is appropriate for universities to accept tobacco money for research.
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Philip Morris, based in Richmond, is a likely source for Virginia Commonwealth in its hunt for dollars from a finite number of corporations. Among tobacco companies, Philip Morris is the leader in investing in academic research. And for Virginia Commonwealth, expanding ties with its neighbor could produce other benefits like additional grants and support for other university functions.
About a dozen researchers and research ethicists from other universities were astonished at the restrictions in the contract, when they were told about it.
“When universities sign contracts with these covenants, they are basically giving up their ethos, compromising their values as a university,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who is an expert on corporate influence on medical research. “There should be no debate about having a sponsor with control over the publishing of results.”
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About 15 public health and medical schools no longer accept donations from the tobacco industry, and many major research universities continue to do so only if guaranteed independence to carry out the research and publish the results.
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A tenured scientist at Virginia Commonwealth, who would not be interviewed for attribution because he said he feared retribution against his junior colleagues, called the contract’s restrictions, especially the limitations on publication, “completely unacceptable in the research world.”
For most of the decade, Philip Morris financed conventional research grants, using a scientific panel to select worthy research proposals from professors. The company granted independence to the professors whose work it sponsored and left them free to publish.
Even so, opponents of smoking opposed the grants, arguing that universities should not take money from tobacco companies because of the public health impact of smoking and what they viewed as the industry’s misuse of scientific research.
Last fall, Philip Morris began phasing out this program to switch to developing new products, said Dr. Solana, the company vice president. Some of the new research will be conducted internally, he said, at a new company research center in Richmond, and some will be contracted out to universities and corporations case by case.
The restricted contract with Virginia Commonwealth, Dr. Solana said, was part of what he hopes will be a new and different relationship between the company and universities. But scientists said such restrictions — especially the constraints on publication and what university officials can say publicly — are contrary to the open discussion essential to university research.
“It’s counter to the entire purpose and rationale of a university,” said David Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia University. “It’s not a consulting company; it’s not just another commercial firm.
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The entire article is here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Industry-Funded Research – Part II,” and “Captured Science.”