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Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

By refusing funds, the School of Public Health upholds basic ethical standards

In a joint statement released in late January, the Harvard School of Public Health joined 16 other schools in refusing funds from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. They cited concerns that the Foundation is funded by, and too closely associated with, Philip Morris International, a multinational cigarette and tobacco company. Although the School of Public Health’s rejection of these funds is not itself praiseworthy, we are glad that the it has upheld basic ethical standards for academic research.

It is worth noting that Harvard scientists have a history of accepting unscrupulous funding from suspect sources. In one example from 1967, Harvard scientists published a study on the effects of sugar on heart disease without disclosing funding from the Sugar Research Foundation, a group backed by the sugar industry.

This unfortunate example highlights the essential role of objectivity in research. In scientific research, and especially in public health, findings can have life-altering implications for the health of millions. The need for transparency is obvious. Researchers must avoid conflicts of interest that could compromise the ethical integrity of not only their work, but also that of their institution.

We see evidence of the importance of academic integrity and transparency in the Honor Code for Harvard College, which states that members of the College community commit themselves to adhering to scholarly and intellectual standards. We expect no less from the School of Public Health and Harvard as a whole.

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According to the World Health Organization, Philip Morris International has committed approximately $80 million annually to the Foundation for the next twelve years. It is clear that the tobacco industry and public health are fundamentally at odds, and regardless of the Foundation’s intentions, this financial connection undermines the Foundation’s objectivity as a potential sponsor of ethical scientific research.

We urge other schools at Harvard and beyond to follow similar steps that the School of Public Health has taken in vetting would-be donors. Conflicts of interest are not limited to public health studies, or even STEM fields, and ethical transgressions in the humanities and social sciences are no less serious.

Although some might argue that tightening research budgets in the past few years necessitate flexibility toward sources of funding, modern ethical guidelines remain unwavering. Researchers and institutions ought not compromise the integrity of their work even in a time of scarce funding.

We hope that the School of Public Health continues to live up to ethical standards and avoid conflicts of interest as a research organization ought to, and that other schools at Harvard follow their example.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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