Harvard University has a famous tradition known locally as "every tub on its
own bottom." Translated, that means that each faculty or school of the university
is responsible for raising most of its own research money, and finders are
The Harvard name, of course, is ample bait to attract all sorts of funders,
savory and otherwise. But just how low will Harvard go to get a grant?
Recently, it came out that John D. Graham, President Bush's nominee to be the
government-wide antiregulation czar based at the Office of Management and Budget,
has taken loads of self-serving industry money to underwrite his Harvard Center
for Risk Analysis. Among other things, Graham solicited tobacco industry money
and worked with that industry to disparage the risks of secondhand smoke. His
dean of faculty, Harvey Fineberg of the Harvard School of Public Health, made
Graham give the money back. Graham's center also published a study suggesting
that there was little need to be concerned about increased accidents caused by
people using cell phones while driving. The study was funded by AT&T Wireless
Communications, according to Public Citizen. And the center also put out a
risk-benefit computation--later reduced after peer review--contending that
automobile airbags cost $399,000 for each year of life saved. Graham's story line
is that most government regulation doesn't pass the cost-benefit test. Is it any
wonder that industry is eager to fund him?
The PR man for the center, David Ropeik, whose title is "Director of Risk
Communication," contends that all funders are self-interested--the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no less than the tobacco industry.
Now comes word of a new "Kuwait Program," at Harvard's prestigious John F.
Kennedy School of Government. The fledgling fund, in turn, is underwritten by the
Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences. Suggested grant topics for
Harvard scholars include such subjects as water resources, air pollution, public
health, and oil and petrochemicals. Not on the list, however, are topics like
democracy and free speech in Kuwait, the status of women, guest workers, and
religious minorities. If you want funding to study those topics as they relate
to Kuwait, Harvard's Kuwait Program Research Fund evidently can't help you.
Harvard does have an Office of Sponsored Research, which vets contracts for
compliance with protocols for research on human subjects and animals, and makes
sure Harvard gets paid on time. But the issue of whether the funder is too
self-interested to pass a smell test is not subject to university-wide review.
"That varies by tub," according to the Office's Elizabeth Mora. In other words,
each faculty of the university decides its own ethical standards. Only very
infrequently, as in the case of tobacco money, does the university's provost
order a policy for all of Harvard.
What's next for Harvard? The NRA Institute of Gun Safety? The Taliban Center
for Faith-Based Services?