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Big Tobacco’s health research: What are these university folks smoking, anyway?

Just when you think you’ve heard the last politically correct, holier-than-thou pronouncement coming out of our university campuses for a while, you open the morning’s newspaper and find more inanities. This morning’s two-minutes-outrage is a rant from campus professors, researchers and administrators criticizing Big Tobacco for giving – and universities for accepting – no-strings-attached grants for health-related research at Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of technology, and the University of Massachusetts. 

“Taking money from the tobacco industry to conduct scientific research is like the DA taking money from the Mafia to conduct investigations of crime,” Gregory Connolly, a prof at Harvard School of Public Health, is quoted by the Boston Globe as saying. Connolly may be an expert in his field, but he clearly is ill-informed about how the government funds its anti-Mafia investigations. In fact, state and local prosecutors rely on mob and other criminal money, collected through the asset forfeiture programs enacted in many jurisdictions, to run those investigations and otherwise fund law enforcement offices. Private ill-gotten gains are thus redirected into the law enforcement coffer, then subsequently turned around and aimed back at the criminal syndicates.

Of course, Mafia kingpins aren’t being generous or philanthropic when they “fund” activities that are clearly against their own self-interests through this process. By contrast, the Globe article shows that Big Tobacco is actually voluntarily forking over big bucks for health-related research – especially into those diseases that the companies’ products help cause in the first place. There’s a certain justice to this, no? Besides, what would Professor Connolly prefer Philip Morris do with the money instead of donating it to universities – add to its tobacco advertising budget?

Dr. Michael Siegel of B.U.’s School of Public Health fears that the tobacco companies will be “using the good name” of the various academic institutions. Isn’t that what virtually all donors are trying to do – and does Dr. Siegel propose that our colleges and universities do morality checks before accepting money from donors, much less before naming classrooms or even whole buildings after them? One can barely imagine how lists of alumni and other donors would quickly shrink. And, besides, whose test of morality would apply – Dr. Siegel’s?

One of the rare voices of sanity to come through this morass of pious bleating is that of researcher Rami Tzafriri of MIT. He defends his use of tobacco money “that does not compromise my independence.” It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that such sanity and honesty emanate from MIT, an institution still devoted to rational thought rather than to the latest intellectual and pseudo-political fashions of the day. (That’s why speech is freer at MIT than at most other academic institutions plagued by speech codes, but that’s a column for another day.) Academics at MIT are secure enough in their own professional scruples to understand that the source of their funds will not (at least in the case of no-strings-attached grants) compromise the methodologies or outcomes of their research. What does it say about the integrity of other schools’ faculties when professors start wringing their hands self-consciously, worrying about interference with research?

This interscholastic debate parallels a similar contretemps which broke out in the 1990’s at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). By that time the organization was experiencing severe tensions between, on the one hand, true-believer civil libertarians, and, on the other, those who wanted to turn the venerable organization into a “progressive” political group that would carry forward a political program rather than focus on free speech and other such liberty issues. (Such politicization would devastate the organization’s credibility as an honest broker for liberty. In fact, this battle continues today.) Then Executive Director Ira Glasser defended the group’s acceptance of no-strings-attached grants from Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Morton Mintz strongly criticized Glasser in a series of reports and articles, including a Nieman Report (PDF) and an article in The Progressive. One did not have to be cynical to realize why Big Tobacco would support the ACLU – the companies were dependent on the nation’s tradition of allowing people to harm themselves if they really want do, as well as on the free speech arguments in favor of “commercial speech” (read: tobacco advertising). But as long as the ACLU was in control of how the money was spent, Glasser rightly refused to knuckle under to the PC crowd.

Hey – if the universities decide to do investigations of the good moral character of their donors as well as the ways in which they made their fortunes, I’d like to volunteer to be on that committee. I can probably get material for a few truly awesome columns, if not a screenplay or two.

                                                                    Harvey Silverglate

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