Peter Miller and others apply the PERIL analysis proposed by Peter Adams to determine if research funding offered by a tobacco company should be accepted.
Case study: Funding opportunity from a tobacco company
A university-based School of Medicine distributes an email announcing to all faculty and staff the availability of a new research funding opportunity. The announcement reads: “Please see the link below for an available funding opportunity from the Philip Morris External Research Foundation”. The website invited scientists to submit funding proposals to Philip Morris’ independent, peer reviewed, external research programme, which is willing to support research on the disease mechanisms and health endpoints of tobacco smoking and smoke exposure. The programme’s Scientific Advisory Board Members are listed on one of the pages of the Request for Applications (RFA), an impressive looking group of academics, including department chairs, distinguished professors, and even the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This announcement raises a number of questions about the moral hazards of industry sponsorship of scientific research.
Assume you are a tobacco researcher at a large academic medical center whose dissertation was recently completed on a topic related to the announcement. Should you apply for the funds? A PERIL analysis along the lines recommended in the Adams article would require some independent research and a review of the literature on tobacco industry tactics.
PERIL analysis
Is the purpose of your academic institution (e.g., “excellent medical care through research and education”) consistent with the stated purpose of Philip Morris (i.e., to sell cigarettes to adults, without taking any responsibility for the millions of adolescents who become addicted before they can legally purchase tobacco products)? If your institution is in any way devoted to health, the answer is that the purposes are incompatible. In addition, some have pointed to the anti-scientific record of Philip Morris. The reason Philip Morris’ research foundation is now called “external” is that the company was ordered to disband a prior organization that was found by a US court of law to be biased in the way it awarded grants to scientists.
What about the extent of the funding? Is it sufficient to compromise the independence of an academic medical center with a large portfolio of research grants and contracts? Probably not, but for individual investigators it could create a dependence on tobacco money when other sources of funding become more scarce.
Is there a relevant harm associated with Philip Morris’s continued marketing of tobacco products? The evidence is incontrovertible.
Will the recipient of the funds be identified with the funder so that Philip Morris might benefit from its support of university-based students? And could funded scientists eventually be exposed to reputational risk if their names were associated with Philip Morris? The answer is a possible yes to both questions.
Finally, is the nature of the link between the recipient and donor direct or indirect? In this case it is indirect, so it may not involve a major conflict of interest, and there are no limitations on publication imposed by the funder.
In summary, the analysis indicates that there are incompatible institutional interests, a potential for developing dependence on an industry funding source, relevant harms to the public if tobacco sales continue as more research is conducted, a potential for future reputational risk, and a potential political benefit for Philip Morris.
See also
Miller, P. et al, ‘Relationships with the Alcohol Beverage Industry, Pharmaceutical Companies, and other Funding Agencies: Holy Grail or Poisoned Chalice?‘, Publishing Addiction Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (2008), 190-212, Box 16.7.