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UC regents delay tobacco funds vote

Board is unable to reach an agreement on whether to ban research money from cigarette makers. A compromise will be sought.

July 19, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Members of the UC Board of Regents, unable to agree on a proposal to ban tobacco industry money for research, said Wednesday that they would seek a compromise to maintain the university's integrity while protecting academic freedom.

But finding a solution to the long-running ethics issue may prove difficult.

The board is divided between regents who oppose the acceptance of any tobacco funds because of the industry's history of manipulating research and members who believe the university should trust the faculty to decide what grants to accept.

The issue has come before the board repeatedly during the past year, and each time a decision has been postponed. On Wednesday, the board agreed to consider the question again in September.

"One thing we can all agree on when it comes to tobacco funding of research -- and that is that passions run high on every side of this issue," said board Chairman Richard Blum, who supports a ban.

Researchers at seven of UC's 10 campuses are conducting research under 23 grants from Philip Morris USA totaling $16,647,661, according to the UC Office of Research.

Among the leading campuses are UCLA, with grants totaling $7.7 million, UC Davis with $3.8 million, UC Berkeley with $2.1 million and UC San Diego with $1.5 million.

During Wednesday's debate at UC Santa Barbara, the regents heard from former U.S. Justice Department attorney Sharon Eubanks, who led the government's successful nine-year racketeering case against the tobacco industry.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in that case last year that the major American tobacco companies conspired for decades to deceive the public and had manipulated research to make it appear that scientists disagreed on the effects of second-hand smoke. One study she cited was conducted by UCLA researcher James Enstrom.

Eubanks urged the regents to ban tobacco funding.

"Why would the University of California permit university researchers to accept money from a group of racketeers who intentionally mislead the public?" she asked. More than 20 other universities across the country have banned the acceptance of tobacco research funds. Eubanks predicted that, as a result, the industry will pump increasing amounts of money into UC.

"There is a lot of money that will come to UC as other universities adopt a ban," she said. "UC without the policy will become the poster child for this research."

But most of the board members were not persuaded. Some expressed concern that prohibiting faculty members from accepting funds from one industry could lead to bans on grants from other industries.

Several regents also argued that the board should respect the recommendation of UC's Academic Senate, which voted earlier this year in favor of allowing continued tobacco industry funding of research.

"I think this goes to the fundamental relationship the university is built on," said regent Sherry Lansing. "I don't think this is just about tobacco. We asked the Academic Senate to come back with how they felt about it ... and I trust them."

Under UC's code of conduct, researchers can accept money from any source to finance their work. Blum and UC President Bob Dynes, who opposes a ban, said after the meeting that they would attempt to come up with a compromise that would stop short of a ban but allow the regents to review research applications for tobacco industry funds before grants are awarded.

"At the end of the day, I think the regents will want to know about a proposal to take tobacco money for research," Blum said. "What form that will take we have to work out."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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