If you were a university professor and a company was willing to donate thousands of dollars toward your research, would you accept the donation?
Many would probably say yes. Few institutions can count solely on money generated by students’ tuition and state and federal grants to finance studies. Researchers are forced to look for funding outside the public sector to continue their academic work.
But what if the contributing business was a tobacco company?
The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas was recently faced with just such an issue. In a Feb. 4 article in the New York Times, dean of the business school George Gau said the decision was an easy one. Gau’s school decided two months ago to refuse all tobacco money – not just for research but student activities and conferences.
“What it came down to for us was the ethical dimension,” he said. “The leadership of the school felt that in some sense it was tainted money, that it is money gotten from a product that is significantly harming people.”
For some in higher education, the dangerous products peddled by tobacco companies are enough to justify the refusal of money. Others point to the infamous history the industry has of muddying the research that proved the health risk of their products.
Not every school has shut out Big Tobacco’s money. Last September, the California Board of Regents rejected a proposal that would ban tobacco money for research. Instead, chancellors on each of the regents’ campuses will have the autonomy to decide.
Accepting money from tobacco companies does not mean a university endorses smoking. The issue at stake is not tobacco but academic freedom. For this reason, the California plan makes sense; the decision to accept tobacco money should come from the bottom up, starting with scientists, professors, researchers, faculties and departments, not top down, like from the regents or central administration.
Medical and public-health schools are more likely to completely ban tobacco money, removing their faculty members’ power to make an individual choice. According to the Times article, Emory University medical school already has banned tobacco money, along with public-health schools at Ohio State, Louisiana State, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the universities of Iowa, Arizona and North Carolina.
Though a gap exists between what such schools teach and what the tobacco companies promote, researchers still deserve the authority to reach their own verdict. When a school makes the decision for its faculty, an important academic right is denied.
Rob Denell, professor of biology, said though a university has the power and responsibility of oversight, wholesale bans on the source of funding for research should be rare.
“A faculty member’s ability to choose a research area and to achieve funding for it is an important aspect of academic freedom,” he said. “Many of the awards derived from tobacco companies support research that has nothing to do with tobacco and its impact on human health.”
Denell is the director for the Terry C. Johnson Center for Basic Cancer Research, an on-campus entity with 60 affiliated faculty members. The center takes a hands-off approach in determining what sources of funding should be pursued by its researchers.
“In general, the individual faculty members apply for grants in ways in which the center has no role whatsoever,” Denell said.
This freedom is an academic right. If steps are to be taken to refuse funding from controversial sources, researchers should work together, build consensus and form policy that makes sense for their department or institution. If the question of accepting money from tobacco companies is an ethical one, let researchers decide independently, based on their own ethics.
The purpose of higher education is to train future citizens and pursue knowledge in an impartial environment. Accepting tobacco money for research does not endanger that mission. Refusing research contributions would do little but deny schools a viable source of funding. The controversial nature of a corporation should not preclude its donations from being used for research on campuses.
Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to email@example.com.