‘No’ to UC tobacco funds

SN&R’s cover story last week, “Smoked out!” revealed the hidden history of UC Davis’ 35-year collaboration with Big Tobacco.

Next month when the University of California Board of Regents takes up the issue of a ban on tobacco-industry research funding, they will be facing a UC faculty that has voted overwhelmingly against such a ban. The UC Academic Senate voted 49 to 4 in opposition to such a ban. The UC Davis faculty assembly voted 47 to 1 against it.

But the UC faculty position is mistaken, and the Regents should correct them.

While faculty members argued that any ban on funding would be a violation of academic freedom, the real force of their near-unanimous position emerges from their conflicted position: They are researchers who are always in search of research money. On the matter of academic freedom, imposing a specific ban on tobacco-industry research funding would be an expression of academic freedom, not its violation. After all, what’s the point of freedom if it’s not used in making a choice?

More than anything, the faculty vote represents fear that other sources of research funds might be threatened. Stripped of the faculty’s self-interest, this is the “slippery slope” argument: If a ban is imposed on tobacco-research funds, what’s to stop a ban on research funds from corporations that contribute to global warming? From pharmaceutical companies that injure and kill people by withholding negative clinical trials data?

In the first instance, the tobacco industry has this unique attribute: Used exactly as prescribed, their products kill you. The cigarette companies are responsible for over 400,000 deaths annually in the United States and over 5 million per year globally. Furthermore, only the tobacco industry has been found guilty of felonious racketeering by a federal judge, who specifically cited their grants to academia as an integral part of the racket. Even the UC faculty admits that at its most benign, Big Tobacco uses university affiliations to legitimize itself as a responsible industry. Recall that this is the industry that recently had to be forced to agree not to market cigarettes flavored with chocolate and other child-friendly tastes.

We trust that the UC can make the distinction between this criminal enterprise and other businesses. The Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University schools of medicine have had no trouble doing so.

But in the second instance, the slippery slope argument does have some merit. UC is taking research monies from other major industries that are the source of horrific social, health and environmental problems. The UC faculty and Regents would be well-advised to take a fearless look at how those corporate entanglements also might distort the university’s mission. A policy of absolute transparency would be a good start: All UC corporate research contracts should be publicly available on a Web site. If there’s nothing to hide, then nothing should be hidden.

Just like most of us, the UC faculty often can’t see beyond short-term self-interest. In this instance, the Regents should come to their aid and ban tobacco-industry research funding.