March 3, 2008

Tobacco Donations Fund Plant Breeding Research

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More and more universities across the country have decided to reject hefty donations and grants from big tobacco companies. However, such a decision has not been fully implemented at Cornell, where Philip Morris USA, one of the world’s largest tobacco corporations, is currently funding research in the plant breeding and genetics department, according to the Cornell Press Office.
The $923,037 grant is the only one from Philip Morris to Cornell. The University has received no other donations and has no research sponsored by tobacco companies. It does, however, work with anti-tobacco groups — the Tobacco Control and Research Foundation, for instance — in what “looks like a financial relationship,” according to Blaine Friedlander, assistant director of the Press Office.
Many universities oppose donations from tobacco companies on strictly moral grounds. Paula Murray, associate dean at the University of Texas, convinced her staff at the McCombs School of Business to stop accepting money from Philip Morris by appeal to such an argument.
“You’ve got a product that is deadly. There’s no way you can smoke a cigarette that it’s good for you. Let’s not take money from Philip Morris,” Murray said.
For Murray, it wasn’t a “question of quantity,” or how much her school was making off tobacco money.
“I don’t even know how much [Philip Morris was giving]. We’ll find other sources,” Murray said.
Others, such as Ellen Vargyas, corporate secretary of the American Legacy Foundation, fear that tobacco companies will interfere with academic research. Vargyas cited a 1999 court decision against big tobacco companies, which concluded that nine major tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, had “engaged in and executed — and continue to engage in and execute — a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public,” according to the Department of Defense’s “Final Proposed Findings of Fact. “
“Historically, the tobacco industry has given a lot of money to institutions, using its money to control research and to get the results that they want,” Vargyas said.
Vargyas and the ALF have decided not to give their money to any institution accepting donations or grants from tobacco companies.
“We don’t want our money anywhere near tobacco money,” Vargyas said.
While many anti-tobacco organizations fear that tobacco money will taint research, Cornell’s official research policy does not substantiate this fear.
“Given the open nature of Cornell University, research projects which do not permit the free and open publication, presentation, or discussion of results are not acceptable. Nor will the University enter into any agreements unless the principal and co-principal investigators have the final authority on what is to be published or presented,” according to the Cornell Faculty Handbook.
Faculty members at Stanford University fought against prohibitions to tobacco money last year, defending their standards for academic freedom, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
Still, such claims of independence from financial coercion do not convince others.
“I do believe that university campuses should not accept money from tobacco companies,” said Prof. Elena A. Iankova, international business.
Many universities have questioned how they would compensate for lost funds if they were to reject money from tobacco companies. The question remains a pressing issue for institutions dependent on such funding.
“We don’t have enough money to match [the tobacco donations]. The tobacco industry is wildly profitable and they use their money smartly. Of course, we think some things are more important than money,” said Vargyas.
The question ultimately rests on precisely how tobacco companies currently interact with the universities they provide funding for. Philip Morris did not comment on their relationship with Cornell, or their incentives for funding the plant breeding and genetics project entitled “A Comparative Mapping Resource Connecting Nicotiana with Other Solaneceous Species.”