Private Research Funding Eases Effect of Persisting Budget Woes

    UNIVERSITY
    OF CALIFORNIA —
    The UC Board of Regents finally did something
    right. After a series of recent blunders, from fee hikes to pay scandals, last
    month brought a glimmer of hope to what has been an embarrassing
    administration.

    In their Sept. 20 meeting, the regents finally ended a
    months-long fracas over the university’s tobacco company-funded research
    grants. In early January, UC Regent John J. Moores initiated the anti-tobacco
    policy in hope of dispelling rising concerns about the university’s kinship
    with scorned tobacco giant Philip Morris. But with faculty opposition to the
    proposal mounting universitywide, regents wisely decided to nix the proposed
    ban and promise more research transparency.

    The victory for faculty and students, however, has been
    tarnished and assailed by an onslaught of nicotine-bashing, irrational
    idealists who claim the move will discredit the university’s prized reputation
    for superior research. These anti-tobacco parties accuse the companies of
    conducting crooked studies aimed at fixing results, citing such practices as
    reason for the UC system to sever its ties.

    However, the time for
    manipulating studies has come and gone for the tobacco industry. By now, we can
    assume the majority of Americans recognize the dangers associated with smoking,
    leaving little incentive for the industry to empty its pockets to reverse
    something that is irreversible.

    The anti-tobacco advocacy groups — too engrossed in the
    principle of the issue — have ultimately lost sight of the facts. The past
    decade has brought astounding budget cuts to California’s education system, and
    much of the difference is now carried by the state’s over-burdened students. As
    its shaky grasp of state funding continuously looses with each nocuous blow to
    the education budget, the UC system has driven into a corner by state
    legislators and forced to explore alternative funding avenues for the system’s
    wide range of projects. Research is just one example.

    Last year alone, the UC system drew in almost $17 million
    from 23 different grants given by Philip Morris. It would be challenging, if
    not impossible, for the university to solicit that sum of money year after year
    from other sources — student fees aside. And it’s for this reason that the
    regents’ decision was such a crucial one. Had the ban been approved, the board
    would have set a dangerous precedent for scrutinizing and curbing private
    funding, a concern faculty members raised when the issue was on trial. It would
    have endangered other private companies like British Petroleum, which recently
    offered UC Berkeley $500 million in grant money for biofuel research.

    As for the university’s ability to maintain reputable
    research with third-party supporters, this
    will likely not be an issue. Research is one department where the university
    has preserved an unstained track record.

    Take, for example, the
    university’s endeavors in nuclear research at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore
    national laboratories, both of which the UC system has operated for over 60
    years. Aside from public contention over the labs’ nuclear-oriented work, they
    have yet to upset the university’s overall academic mission. Instead, they have employed 17,000 workers and
    earned a combined sum of close to $4 billion a year — money that is needed
    especially during the current state budget cuts.

    So despite the
    activists who continue to bemoan the decision, tobacco-funded research is still
    the university’s golden ticket. In fact, as the threat of further education
    budget cuts grows substantially more bloated every passing year, the university
    would be wise to continue pursuing similar ventures with other private
    enterprises.

    Just this month, State
    Treasurer Bill Lockyer released a bill that would starve the university of 20 percent of its annual funding by
    eliminating all state financial support. Though the legislation’s chances of
    survival are less than slim, it
    highlights the dire condition of the UC system, which will no doubt force the
    university to approach funding matters in a drastically different manner in the
    coming years.

    The tobacco fiasco was
    just one example in a line of many more to come. Whether or not the decision
    was made with the foresight of future budget ails, it will no doubt be good
    business for the struggling system. And
    as long as Uncle Sam continues cutting off the university, the more it will be
    forced to look elsewhere and the less it will be able to act on principle
    alone.

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