I was recently contacted to take part in a challenge which was interesting and relevant to my research, in the framework of the Systems Biology Verification (SBV) IMPROVER project. The problem is that it is organized and supported by Philip Morris International, a small tobacco company which you might of heard about.
Which raises the question: why did I refuse, whereas I might have accepted if it were financed by a different industry?
In a normal industry, R&D can have legitimate aims. In fact, if there were no R&D, it would be a problem. We can debate the implementation, and think that some things could be better done, but we something should be done. For example junk food is a bad thing, but we need to eat, thus there is place for legitimate and useful R&D in agro-food business. Big SUVs are bad, but we need to move, and there is place for legitimate and useful R&D on efficient less polluting motors, etc.
But what can be the aim of R&D in tobacco industry? Making tobacco slightly less dangerous? There’s a simpler solution: don’t smoke. It is not a legitimate need. And research supported by tobacco industry has another point: spread doubt and obscur research which shows clearly and unambiguously that tobacco is a horrible poison. It can be subtle, often supporting research on real issues which move the spotlight elsewhere.
In the case of this « Challenge », the theme is « Species translation », and it seems to focus on the problems with transferring experimental results between species. For example, problems in transferring to human toxicology results from mouse or rat. It’s a real question, but you cannot help but feel that it is to the advantage of the producer of toxic substances to put this forward.