The NYT today reports on an astoundingly unethical and outrageous research agreement between VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Philip Morris USA. The need to deny existence of this agreement if asked by the press … the ability of Philip Morris to remove everything but prepositions from journal manuscripts and any other form of dissemination … the pre-assignment to the company of intellectual property generated. Jiminy Crickets.
This would be unconscionable no matter who the corporate sponsor was, but the fact that the largest tobacco company in the US has secretly garnered such power over academic researchers (& that this agreement has been kept secret from VCU’s academic community itself no less) is almost beyond belief. And that such agreements have been secured with other universities as well is truly alarming.
An April 24 NEJM editorial notes “Given the enormous burden of smoking-related illness and the ongoing sale of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, one might question the advisability of research entities accepting funding from tobacco companies except through the American Legacy Foundation, which distributes funds received through the Master Settlement Agreement with U.S. tobacco companies.”
So well said. What happens when you add the qualifiers that the tobacco company is given the IP, can block publication, and requires the University to deny even the existence of the contract and individual projects supported under it? I think we’re well beyond questioning advisability. However, this recently published history of the VCU-Philip Morris partnership sheds light on how and why VCU would have sought such an agreement with the tobacco industry.
This particular situation easily spills over into broader issues of research integrity, no matter the sponsor. The reporter correctly notes that the dire need for money fuels this sort of “turn a blind eye” reliance on any funding opportunity, no matter the source. (The reporter incorrectly suggests VCU takes in $227 million in research awards: as evidenced by the 2006 award listing, this total, inflated by contributors such as ~$25M from Qatar for their School of the Arts, is for sponsored programs of all types; the NSF ranks VCU 104th [wow, after Univ Alaska Fairbanks, at 102] with total R&D expenditures from all sources of $149M , $65M of which is from the NIH.) On the other hand, VCU seems to have sold its soul for not much money unless there is a significant “gift” under negotiation as a quid pro quo.
John Frangioni at Harvard recently noted in a Nature Biotechnology commentary about greed at academic medical centers (AMCs) that “US citizens and taxpayers expect that AMCs maintain their hard-earned status of independence from external forces and place the public good higher than any other motivation.”
I cannot imagine a situation in which the public good is abandoned more than in this agreement binding a public institution of higher learning and academic medical center to conduct secret research for the tobacco industry.