Regents Drop Ban on Tobacco Research

    One year after the UC Board of Regents first grappled with a proposed ban on tobacco corporation funding for university researchers, it approved a new resolution which serves as an act of compromise — providing more oversight over the controversial awards, but opting not to reject them entirely.

    The resolution, which passed 14-4 at the regents’ Sept. 20 meeting, addresses concerns of both sides of the long, heated debate. Proponents of the ban have been concerned about the moral and reputational hazards of tying the university to tobacco companies that have engaged in unethical corporate practices, while the other side believes that restrictions on academic freedom would be more dangerous.

    Instead, the new policy invokes more oversight and “sunshine measures” to improve transparency with future awards from tobacco companies. Specifically, a scientific review committee will be assembled to evaluate the research and provide a recommendation, which will then be passed on to the school’s respective chancellor for approval. The regents will receive an annual report and notice of each proposal.

    The action item initially proposed by Regent John J. Moores had additional research oversight and funding approval provisions for the regents themselves, but several regents opposed those measures on the grounds that the board would potentially be “micromanaging.”

    “This is a dangerous area,” Regent Frederick Ruiz said. “I think it is bad governance for the regents to be trying to micromanage something like this. I mean, what’s next? Nuclear energy, oil, stem-cell research, gene therapy, birth control, abortions? … I don’t think this is our job.”

    Ruiz, one of the four dissenting votes on the resolution, had also advised the regents that the issue was one for the UC Academic Senate to decide, reminding the board that the senate had overwhelmingly rejected the ban in May by a 43-4 vote.

    Tobacco-funded research currently totals a mere $16 million in the UC system, out of $4 billion that the University of California had in total revenue from contracts and grants awarded in fiscal year 2006 alone. UCSD currently has four active projects funded by Philip Morris USA — totaling $1.5 million — according to Vice Chancellor for Research Arthur B. Ellis.

    “Because we have such a small number of research projects in this area, we do not expect to see any real impact as a result of these new guidelines,” Ellis said.

    Former San Diego Division Academic Senate Chair Henry C. Powell, who represented UCSD at the May Academic Senate meeting, agreed.

    “Relative to the size of UCSD’s research grant portfolio, this is quite small,” Powell said in an e-mail. “So the fight was about a principle, namely that a scientist should be able to apply for research funds without restrictions, unless such restrictions are put there by law. But all scientists in the UC system are accountable for the integrity of their scholarly work; that practice applies to all funding, private and public.”

    Michael Karin, a researcher at the UCSD School of Medicine, began a project in June that received $43,200 from Philip Morris.

    “Our work is focused on the pathogenic roles of cigarette smoke,” Karin said in an e-mail. “Under no circumstance [does] it provide tobacco [companies] a way to claim that smoking is not a bad thing for health. … We need money for research and UC does not provide us with any funds. So it is up to us the researchers to raise the funds.”

    Once a scientific peer review committee is assembled, new and renewed grants awarded by Philip Morris and other tobacco companies will be scrutinized. Chancellor Marye Anne Fox will make the final decision.

    “Chancellor Fox is a very strong advocate of academic freedom who has followed this issue closely and understands its importance in the broader context,” Powell said. “I have the highest confidence in her judgment.”

    However, UCLA epidemiologist James Enstrom said he is still concerned. His research project, which challenges prior research that links tobacco smoke to disease, has been hotly contested by UC San Francisco cardiology professor Stanton Glantz. The issue spurred the discussion of a possible ban, though Enstrom was cleared by UCLA for any wrongdoing.

    “There’s going to be a chilling effect on the ability to do research,” Enstrom said. “We’ll have to see how it evolves over time. It’s good, but it’s still not the way the faculty wanted it. If the funding dries up, then they won by intimidation. The real test is going to be whether this really kills off the research in the coming years. That will be troubling.”

    Powell agreed, citing that scholars are in the business of providing careful research and the public needs reliable information.

    “What this controversy has underlined is that research into the harmful effects of environmental tobacco smoke is less conclusive than generally supposed,” Powell said. “In my view, what is badly needed, I think, is more — ­not less — research.”

    Up until now, most research proposals undergo scientific review if, for example, animal testing or a potential conflict of interest is involved. However, restriction of funding sources for research is unprecedented in the UC system. Therefore, restrictions based on moral and reputational issues has been controversial.

    “People are trying to assign validity according to a source of funding, not what [a researcher] actually does,” Enstrom said.

    Glantz, on the other hand, said he views the issue as one discouraging groups with agendas promoting unhealthy behavior from seeking research to legitimize their goals.

    While one year of debate and voting by both the Academic Senate and the UC Board of Regents has resulted in the resolution, there is no guarantee that the issue — which goes back to 2004 — will remain resolved.

    “I cannot be certain that this will not resurface, but I think that a compromise that brings together UC Regents and faculty will restore stability to the situation,” Powell said.

    On May 17, Stanford University similarly rejected a ban on tobacco-company funding by a 21-10 vote. Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Washington and approximately 11 other institutions across the nation currently have such bans in place.

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