UCSF faculty members recently voted 52 percent to 48 percent not to start accepting funds from manufacturers of tobacco products or their subsidiaries.
The vote, which garnered about 494 responses or 27 percent of those who were sent ballots (an average return for the Academic Senate's electronic voting system), attempts to put into policy what has been a practice at UCSF for years. No UCSF faculty members currently accept tobacco funds for research.
The faculty members responded to the question: "Should we, the faculty at UCSF, refuse to accept any funding from the tobacco industry and the foundations it supports, an agreement that would be binding for all UCSF faculty?" Results were released in January.
Supporters of the ban believe that UCSF, already a global leader in research on tobacco addiction, tobacco control policy and prevention, should take a stand against an industry that promotes smoking -- the largest preventable cause of disease and death in the US. They say the tobacco industry's actions to stifle the truth and consequences of smoking run counter to the principle of academic freedom and UC policy.
"I believe this vote supports the proposition that a health sciences university should not accept research funding from companies which manufacture products that have a high likelihood of killing or injuring users, and which have behaved unethically in the past," says Neal Benowitz, professor of medicine, psychiatry and biopharmaceutical sciences. "I hope that this vote will encourage other UC health sciences campuses to address the issue on their campuses."
Opponents of the ban believe the vote violates the principle of academic freedom and sets a dangerous precedent of turning away money from organizations with specific agendas. They say that current UC policies already address ethics and acceptance of research money and that additional restrictions on their research are unwarranted.
Those who voted against the ban "are expressing their right for academic freedom: They individually determine the direction and source of funding for their academic research," says Patricia Robertson, professor of obstetrics and gynecology.
"There is also an issue of trying to figure out what exactly is tobacco money, as many of the tobacco companies are so diversified, that it may be difficult to know all the details, and thus it would be possible to inadvertently have tobacco funding," Robertson says.
The UCSF vote may be largely symbolic, however, since the UC Office of the President has not issued a mandate to the campus' Contracts and Grants office to refrain from accepting funds from the tobacco industry, according to Reg Kelly, executive vice chancellor for research.
"Because of previous attempts to restrict funding sources, I believe during the Vietnam war, the current policies do not allow any legal group to be barred as a funding source," Kelly says.
Larry Coleman, vice president of research at the UC Office of the President, says the issue is quite complex and raises questions that remain unanswered.
"There's this question which keeps coming up whether one faculty group can vote to impose restrictions on another group of faculty. There's an academic freedom issue in that sense as well."
The anti-tobacco measure also "includes language which would limit what the Regents can do with otherwise legitimate funders," says Coleman.
He will be meeting with the systemwide Academic Council, the executive committee of the UC Systemwide Adademic Senate, to discuss the issue.
"We will be discussing the broader issue [of shared governance] on who makes policy in this area and most importantly, what appropriate limits there are for individual faculty members to make decisions about research funding. The Regents are the formal recipients of the funding not faculty members," says Gayle Binion, chair of the UC Academic Senate.
In her view, Binion says, faculty can vote on issues they are concerned about, but at this point the notion of refusing tobacco funding systemwide is only at a discussion stage.
On academic freedom
The central issue in the debate is whether the policy interferes with academic freedom and whether it starts a disturbing trend.
Patrick Fox, professor in residence and chair of the UCSF Academic Senate committee on Academic Freedom, acknowledges that the arguments over academic freedom "have been spun both ways."
But faculty who voted against the measure simply "don't want the University telling them what they can or can't do. There's the potential for a problematic precedent being set. There's a fear of Big Brother and what might be next."
Jeanine Wiener-Kronish, professor of anesthesia and medicine, concurs. "The no vote is a vote for academic freedom. If people can limit who we get funding from, there could be a push to limit funds for stem cell research, limit funds for research on abortion, limits on defense funding, limits on monies from liquor companies, or even limits on funding from pharmaceutical companies. There is a danger when limits on research funding are proposed, as various groups have political agendas."
Stan Glantz, professor of medicine, who along with Benowitz initiated the debate, says that accepting tobacco industry funding itself is a violation of the current UC Regents Regulation 5 on Academic Freedom. That regulation, approved on June 15, 1944, states, the "University assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by unqualified persons or by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda."
"The faculty did not vote to restrict anyone's right to pursue knowledge and publish freely," Glantz says. "We voted to not allow the tobacco industry to coopt the University's good name for propaganda purposes."
Glantz and others believe their own research and that of many others proves that the tobacco industry deserves to be singled out - just as it has been excluded by the UC Regents from University investments.
"The tobacco industry has manipulated scientific research and publication and the investigators it has funded," says Lisa Bero, professor of clinical pharmacy and health policy. "Their purpose has been directly opposed to academic freedom -- as the documents clearly describe, their purpose it to maintain their profits and improve the industry's image. Their purpose has not been to generate new scientific knowledge, which is one of the key aspects of academic freedom."
Ruth Malone, acting associate professor of nursing and health policy, calls the vote "a landmark vote for academic independence.
"The academic freedom argument ignores the fact that academic freedom, like other freedoms, is never absolute and is already constrained in many important ways in order to protect the public. We have freedom to drive cars, but not to go 90 miles as hour. In my opinion, given the egregious scientific misconduct in which the tobacco industry has repeatedly engaged, it is irresponsible to allow it to continue to fund research at a publicly funded institution."
"As multiple studies from UCSF investigators and others have shown, the tobacco industry's interest in science is primarily in producing propaganda that will enable it to appear to be doing something about an epidemic it produced and then spent years denying," says Malone.
A Call for Action
UCSF tobacco researchers Benowitz and Glantz initially wrote a letter to Chancellor Mike Bishop last June asking him to enact a policy to ban tobacco industry funding on behalf of 220 faculty members who signed a petition taking that stance. In their five-page letter to the Chancellor, they cited UCSF's dominant role in tobacco research and belief that the ban does not infringe upon academic freedom.
In his response letter, Chancellor Bishop said that implementing such a policy "raises questions of principle and policy that cannot be dismissed out of hand."
Bishop recommended that the debate continue in the Academic Senate and if the Senate "sees fit, the matter then can be taken to the Academic Council" for discussion.
Daniel Bikle, chair of the UCSF Academic Senate, then convened a task force with representatives of the senate committees on Academic Freedom and Research to consider the matter and they developed a protocol to ensure broad discussion, ending in the poll last September. All Academic Senate faculty, clinical, adjunct and instructors at 50 percent or greater salary were sent ballots via email for electronic voting.
"The vote was close, indicating the campus is clearly divided on the proposition as to whether to preclude faculty on this campus from receiving tobacco funding," says Bikle. "The fact that there is no investigator on our campus currently receiving tobacco funding suggests that in general this source of funding is deemed unattractive to our faculty, and the need to impose restrictions does not make sense at least to a large number of our faculty."
The vote follows similar actions at several other major health sciences centers, including Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health to refuse funds from the tobacco industry. The Associations of Schools of Public Health voted to refuse tobacco funds to be able to distribute research funds from the American Legacy Foundation (ALF), which does not provide funds to institutions that concurrently accept tobacco funds. This public health foundation was established by the tobacco industry's 1998 settlement of lawsuits brought by a coalition of attorneys general in 46 states and five US territories.
Bikle says he intends to explore whether UCSF can develop a position for the University of California, which can accommodate the desire of the ALF in a manner which does not compromise the academic freedom of UC faculty who are not the beneficiaries of ALF funding.
As Bero put it, UCSF is not going out on a limb with its policy.
"Given that ethical standards for conducting academic research are eroding at many US universities, I am proud that UCSF has taken this step. We are far behind many other major universities in endorsing a prohibition on tobacco industry funding, Harvard is just one example. But, better late than never."
Source: Lisa Cisneros