Skip to main content
You are here

Senate rejects effort to rid UC of tobacco cash

By Dave Jones on April 6, 2007 in University

The UC Davis Academic Senate on Monday rejected a proposed policy to ban the acceptance of research funding from tobacco companies.

The 47-1 vote came at the quarterly meeting of the senate's Representative Assembly. UC Regent John Moores is pushing for a total ban on tobacco money. In a March 21 San Diego Union-Tribune opinion piece, he wrote that "ridding UC of tainted tobacco money will protect the academic integrity of California's great public university." The regents, who delayed a decision in January, are seeking faculty input from all UC campuses before a planned May vote.

Indeed, integrity was the issue for computer scientist Phillip Rogaway, the lone vote in favor of the tobacco funding ban.

"I believe in the arguments for the policy," Rogaway said after the vote. "This shows a lack of social conscience" and too much "reactionary careerism" on the part of fellow faculty members.

But opponents said they were concerned about academic freedom; they maintain that researchers should be free to study whatever they wish and to receive money from whomever they want.

"A 47-1 vote from a bunch of independent-minded people expresses a strong, resonant sentiment, a truly rare event in the academic world," said Thomas Jue, a professor of biochemistry.

According to Jue, who receives grant money from tobacco giant Phillip Morris, UC Davis faculty received a total of 31 research grants and six graduate student or postdoctoral fellowships with links to tobacco groups, from 1996 to 2006 -- with the grants worth a total of about $9 million, more than any other UC campus. Across the UC, there are 19 research projects with known ties to the tobacco industry, totaling about $15.8 million in funds, including those at Davis.

'Slippery slope' on unpopular funding sources

Davis faculty members had reservations about the "poor wording" of the resolution and the "slippery slope" that it posed in banning unpopular funding sources.

Under the proposal, which would affect only future research, UC researchers would not be allowed to take funds from "manufacturers or distributors of tobacco products, their affiliates, or any entity controlling or controlled by such companies."

That wide definition led nutrition professor Judith Stern to comment, "I don't understand this (resolution). I'm voting no. I want to see a focused message."

UC Davis Senate Chair Linda Bisson described the vote as a "lose-lose proposition" that put the faculty in the dilemma of favoring research freedom against public health. She added that many "tobacco companies are broad conglomerates, controlling a wide variety of companies." One example is Philip Morris, which owns Kraft Foods, the largest packaged food company in the world and a large source of consumer research funding.

Jue's Phillip Morris-funded research involves measuring oxygen levels in the body and studying the effects of carbon monoxide on the body.

Other types of campus research with connections to tobacco groups involve studying consumer buying habits in supermarkets and the effect of secondhand smoke on infants.

Above all, Bisson said, absolutely no research promoting tobacco use is taking place.

And so why do these companies fund research at all? Bisson explained that one reason is that sometimes they can get an "early look" at research for public relations purposes, especially if that research is critical of tobacco. However, she and others maintained that researchers are not unduly influenced by their funding sources, and that no evidence exists of UC research misconduct involving funds from tobacco groups.

"If academic integrity depends on your funding source," she explained, "then we have no academic integrity."

Microbiologist Martin Privalsky asked, "Where would it stop? Where do you draw the line" on research funding? Other industries that support higher education research -- alcohol makers and political interests, to name two -- have agendas as well, he added.

John Oakley, a UC Davis law professor and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, implored his colleagues to send a "clear message" to the regents, one way or another.

Under UC's Code of Conduct, researchers can accept money from any source to finance their work. UC does not review any research projects except to ensure that human and animal subjects are not mistreated.

Academic units try for own bans

Within the UC system, seven academic units attempted to ban tobacco funding in 2004 -- they included the UCLA School of Nursing -- but were overruled by UC President Robert Dynes, who said the schools lacked that authority. A similar proposal to this year's measure was raised by the regents in 2006, but failed to gain support.

Across the nation, more than 20 academic institutions have banned tobacco industry funding of tobacco research.

In other news, faculty members approved a bylaw revision to empower the senate leadership to act on behalf of the Representative Assembly in the event of a campus emergency such as a pandemic or natural disaster. As Bisson noted, many campus units are preparing such contingency plans and similar ones have been adopted throughout the UC.

"It's a continuity of business plan," she said.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,