Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Does the Nittany Weasel Blow Smoke?

A few days ago The New York Times, with the help of the Virgina Freedom of Information law, caught Virginia Commonwealth University with its hand in the tobacco jar.
On campuses nationwide, professors and administrators have passionately debated whether their universities should accept money for research from tobacco companies. But not at Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution in Richmond, Va.

That is largely because hardly any faculty members or students there know that there is something to debate — a contract with extremely restrictive terms that the university signed in 2006 to do research for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company and a unit of Altria Group.

The contract bars professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If “a third party,” including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company. Nearly all patent and other intellectual property rights go to the company, not the university or its professors.


But the contract, a copy of which The New York Times obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information law, is highly unusual and raises questions about how far universities will go in search of scarce research dollars to enhance their standing. It also brings a new dimension to the already divisive debate on many campuses over whether it is appropriate for universities to accept tobacco money for research.
What's wrong with this arrangement? Let's hear from the experts.

About a dozen researchers and research ethicists from other universities were astonished at the restrictions in the contract, when they were told about it.

“When universities sign contracts with these covenants, they are basically giving up their ethos, compromising their values as a university,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who is an expert on corporate influence on medical research. “There should be no debate about having a sponsor with control over the publishing of results.”

Stanton A. Glantz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine who has lobbied for banning tobacco money on campuses, said, “University administrators who are desperate for money will basically do anything they have to for money.


At Virginia Commonwealth, few professors appeared to know about the contract; when told about it, a number of them said they were concerned about its secretiveness.

“It’s a controversial area, and I personally prefer transparency,” said Richard P. Wenzel, chairman of the department of internal medicine at the university’s medical school, who had not heard of the contract before a reporter’s call.

Dan Ream, the president of the Faculty Senate, said he, too, knew nothing about the contract.

“It hasn’t come up as an issue of debate in the Faculty Senate at all,” said Mr. Ream, who works in the university’s library. “I’m highly committed to open access to information. That’s one of the tenets of librarianship.”

A tenured scientist at Virginia Commonwealth, who would not be interviewed for attribution because he said he feared retribution against his junior colleagues, called the contract’s restrictions, especially the limitations on publication, “completely unacceptable in the research world.”
Money hungry administrators.....where I have I read about such creatures? Oh yeah!

And Virginia Commonwealth isn't the only university on the PM tobacco dole.
[Rick Solana, the senior vice president for research and technology at Phillip Morris]...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.
One wonders if Penn State, a school which proudly boasts of the amount of corporate research dollars it receives, has a similar deal with Philip Morris or an equally odious arrangement with another company. Of course, there is no way to find out, since Graham and Jake Corman colluded to gut Pennsylvania's new right-to-know law with respect to to Penn State and the other state-related universities.

Hiding such deals was one Graham's reasons for opposing the bill before it passed. This is from his senate testimony.
Penn State ranks second in the nation in grants and contracts from Industry ... about $100 million per year. It is well recognized that contracts with industry can be challenging. Making details of contracts publicly available will threaten our competitive position with universities outside of Pennsylvania, as well as with private universities within PA with whom we compete.
Graham dressed it all up in the language of competition, but I suspect that it all boils down to keeping scandals like the one at Virginia Commonwealth University from ever seeing the light of day at Penn State.

One last thing:Throw Jake Corman out of office!

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