US: At One University, Tobacco Money Is a Secret

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times
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.




"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."




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.




Dr. Macrina would not specify how much money Philip Morris gave for
the restricted research. Historically, the company has not been a
major contributor to the university. Last year, it gave $1.3 million
in research grants that included the restricted contract and a more
traditional independent grant, Dr. Macrina said.




Over all last year, Virginia Commonwealth, with nearly 32,000
students, received $227 million in research grants from government and
private sources, a sum dwarfed by the amounts the nation's largest
research universities take in. For example, the University of
Washington received $1 billion in grants last year, while Johns
Hopkins got $1.4 billion in federal money alone.




Philip Morris, based in Richmond, is a likely source for Virginia
Commonwealth in its hunt for dollars from a finite number of
corporations. Among tobacco companies, Philip Morris is the leader in
investing in academic research. And for Virginia Commonwealth,
expanding ties with its neighbor could produce other benefits like
additional grants and support for other university functions.




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."




Although Dr. Macrina would not discuss many details of the research,
Philip Morris officials were less reticent.




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.




About 15 public health and medical schools no longer accept donations
from the tobacco industry, and many major research universities
continue to do so only if guaranteed independence to carry out the
research and publish the results.




The business school at the University of Texas at Austin decided in
December to stop accepting tobacco money. The University of California
system tightened its oversight of tobacco-financed research last fall,
after rejecting a proposal for a ban.




Virginia Commonwealth's president, Eugene P. Trani, declined to be
interviewed. But Dr. Macrina defended the contract, saying it struck a
reasonable balance between the university's need for openness and
Philip Morris's need for confidentiality, even though it violated
Virginia Commonwealth's own rules.




"These restrictive clauses seek to protect the rights and interests
of multiple parties in the agreement," Dr. Macrina said, pointing
out that Virginia Commonwealth scientists would be working with other
researchers.




Virginia Commonwealth's guidelines for industry-sponsored research
state, "University faculty and students must be free to publish
their results." The guidelines also say the university must retain
all patent and other intellectual property rights from sponsored
research.




Under the agreement, though, Philip Morris alone decides whether the
researchers can publish because the contract defines "without
limitation all work product or other material created by V.C.U." as
proprietary information belonging to the company.




"We would have discussions, and there could well be agreements that
could ultimately result in the publication of proprietary
information," Dr. Macrina said.




Dr. Solana agreed, saying that once the company determined that its
competitive interests were protected, it could permit researchers to
publish.




"We have to start out with is anyone's intellectual property going
to be compromised?" Dr. Solana said. "Once the intellectual
property is protected, then it's usually O.K. to publish.




"Something being proprietary does not mean something cannot be
published. We try to be very supportive in the health area of work
being published."




The contract also includes a longer than usual time for Philip Morris
to review any possible publications by the researchers for potential
patent or other proprietary problems - 120 days, with the option to
continue for 60 days more. Again, this violates university guidelines,
which call for reviews of no more than 90 days.




"When you have multiple parties involved at the level of the
sponsor, we're willing to agree to more time than we usually would,"
Dr. Macrina said.




Dr. Macrina also defended the requirement that the university decline
comment and tell the company if asked about the agreement by news
organizations and other third parties.




"Language like that occurs in agreements like this because the
sponsor wants to be sure there are no slip-ups, that things will not
be released inadvertently," he said.




Dr. Solana said the prohibition was intended to prevent participants
in the research, both at the university or at other companies, from
using the relationship with Philip Morris to promote themselves.




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."




For most of the decade, Philip Morris financed conventional research
grants, using a scientific panel to select worthy research proposals
from professors. The company granted independence to the professors
whose work it sponsored and left them free to publish.




Even so, opponents of smoking opposed the grants, arguing that
universities should not take money from tobacco companies because of
the public health impact of smoking and what they viewed as the
industry's misuse of scientific research.




Last fall, Philip Morris began phasing out this program to switch to
developing new products, said Dr. Solana, the company vice president.
Some of the new research will be conducted internally, he said, at a
new company research center in Richmond, and some will be contracted
out to universities and corporations case by case.




The restricted contract with Virginia Commonwealth, Dr. Solana said,
was part of what he hopes will be a new and different relationship
between the company and universities. But scientists said such
restrictions - especially the constraints on publication and what
university officials can say publicly - are contrary to the open
discussion essential to university research.

"It's counter to
the entire purpose and rationale of a university," said David
Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia
University. "It's not a consulting company; it's not just
another commercial firm."
AMP Section Name:Tobacco