Ban Up in Smoke

Sara Robinson/

Stanford researchers remain free to accept funding from any source, after a resolution to prohibit research sponsorship by the tobacco industry was defeated, 21 to 10, by the Faculty Senate in May. The proposed ban had sparked intense discussion.

Those in favor argued that given Stanford’s commitment to the advancement of human health, the University should not associate with an industry whose product causes millions of deaths each year—and that has been convicted of using sponsored research to defraud the public about tobacco’s hazards. Applied physics professor Steven Block said it would seem “very hypocritical” for the University to stop investing its money in some institutions yet refuse to stop taking money from them.

No one arguing against the ban was an apologist for the industry—indeed, opponents such as Provost John Etchemendy told poignant stories of close family members dying of tobacco-related disease. However, Etchemendy, PhD ’82, said, “this funding ban is not about expressing dissatisfaction or disapproval of [the industry’s] tactics, but it is about academic freedom.”

Vice provost and dean of research Ann Arvin said the proposal would constitute a major change to Stanford’s research policy, substituting “a collective judgment for the trust in individual conscience that we have relied upon since [the current policy] was written in 1971.” Others spoke of slippery slopes: if the tobacco ban proceeded, what sector that some find repugnant might be next: alcohol or oil or stem-cell research?

President John Hennessy cited the Department of Energy. “Is there a bigger threat to the world than nuclear weapons?” he asked. “Should we divest all of our money from the Department of Energy? We would start by closing SLAC. We would close half of the physics department and several of the engineering departments along the way.” He added that oil companies fund more university projects in alternative energy than the federal government does, and that they have at times twisted research in respect to global warming. “Does that mean we shouldn’t take that money?”

Although the resolution was defeated, the issue won’t go away. At press time 65 faculty had signed a petition expressing concern over a recently announced $105 million military research grant.