Friday, May 23, 2008


Alan Finder at the New York Times  has, pardon the bad pun, a smokin' good story about entangled relationships, cigarettes, secrecy and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  To what do I refer?  VCU signed a contract with Philip Morris to conduct research, but the catch is that there is a mega-gag order.  Professors aren't allowed to discuss or publish their results without the permission of (guess...) Philip Morris.  If someone (say, a journalist) asks someone at the university about this agreement, university officials are required to decline comment.  The inquiry is then passed along to the company.  Apparently intellectual property rights emerging from any discoveries from such research belong to Philip Morris, not the university researchers.  Until this story broke, it appears that the vast majority of faculty and students were unaware of this contract, maybe due to its potential for negative public relations.

What does VCU have to say?
“There is restrictive language in here,” said Francis L. Macrina, Virginia Commonwealth’s vice president for research, who acknowledged that many of the provisions violated the university’s guidelines for industry-sponsored research. “In the end, it was language we thought we could agree to. It’s a balancing act.
Oh, that's okay then.  Just because you are Philip Morris's hush-hush scientific whore, it's not a big deal.  It's a "balancing act," which roughly translates to "We'll do anything for a buck."  

But then...
Rick Solana, the senior vice president for research and technology, said university scientists were studying how to identify early warning signs of pulmonary disease, and how to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus drained into rivers from processing tobacco leaves. Dr. Solana also said the contract represented a new focus on developing tobacco products with reduced risks, a shift in strategy in underwriting university research that requires more confidentiality to protect the corporation’s intellectual property rights. And he said Philip Morris had similar arrangements with other universities — although he declined to say how many or which ones.

Imagine that, other universities taking money from tobacco.  All in the name of good science, naturally.  The contract forbids faculty from publishing results without PM's permission, which is a direct violation of VCU's guidelines for industry-faculty collaboration.  But, again, when taking in buckets o' money, all is fair game.  Hey, keep cutting public funding for universities and see if we can make researchers yet more dependent on pharma, tobacco, and whomever else waves the dolla dolla bill.  

Much more analysis available here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You might want to also do a post about universities taking far more money, hundreds of millions of dollars, from the largest pharmaceutical company in the world selling smoking cessation drugs to promote it's anti-smoking agenda. Hint: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.