The tobacco industry has an extensive history of manipulating and undermining research to advance their corporate interests of selling cigarettes. After discussion among the University of California campuses about refusing tobacco industry funding, the University of California regents decided last month that all research proposals seeking tobacco industry funding need to be reviewed by a committee.
This committee will advise campus chancellors on whether proposed studies use sound methodology and appear designed to reach objective and scientifically valid conclusions. In addition, an annual report (and regular updates) will be made to the regents that describe the submitted research proposals from all UC campuses seeking tobacco industry funding, as well as the number of approved and funded proposals. This new UC policy also does not apply to projects already in effect, including the $6-million Philip Morris study at UCLA to study youth addiction to tobacco.
Over the years, scientific analyses of tobacco industry internal documents have shown that the tobacco industry's efforts to suppress, manipulate and distort scientific research span the entire scientific process, from funding to post-publication. Additional safeguards are needed to ensure the integrity of research, investigators and institutions, in situations where there are direct ties, such as research funding, to the tobacco industry.
Will this policy prevent the tobacco industry from manipulating or undermining funded research and scientists? Hardly. Focusing on the initial proposal will only detect initially flawed research that could be manipulated by the tobacco industry. If anything, the new review committee does even less than other research oversight committees — it does not review ongoing work or identify any manipulation of the findings afterward.
Does this committee harm academic freedom? No. Other research oversight committees already exist, such as human subjects and animal-protection review committees. Researchers can still apply for many other tobacco-related grants that are not sponsored by the tobacco industry.
However, UC academic units, such as the schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health, still cannot adopt a policy to prohibit tobacco industry funds. Other leading institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and School of Medicine, and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, have already prohibited acceptance of funds from the tobacco industry.
Although UC has not taken similar steps, this new policy will at least provide some transparency about a funding source that poses a significant threat to the reputation of UC as one of the nation's preeminent research institutions. It will be interesting to see if applications for tobacco-funded research actually increase if scientists feel that their projects have been sanctioned by this new process.
Ong is an assistant professor in residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine, and Sarna is a professor in the School of Nursing.