German research prize raises burning questions

On 16 January, the Philip Morris Stiftung (’Foundation’ in English), announced the four winners of its 25th annual research prize, of €25,000 (£17,000) each. The winners were happy, as was Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich (LMU), one of Germany’s top universities. LMU immediately issued a press release touting the fact that one of its professors, biochemist Patrick Cramer, was a winner.

But not everyone was so pleased. Martina Pötschke-Langer, head of the Heidelberg-based German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), believes scientists should refuse awards like these which are connected to tobacco companies - in this case, Philip Morris International. ’These scientists are lending their reputations to a company that sells tobacco products that kill people,’ she argues. The DKFZ, which is the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Tobacco Control in Germany, is the only research institution in that country which has an outright ban on funding from tobacco companies.

But internationally, it is far from alone. Cancer Research UK will not provide research funding to any university that accepts tobacco industry funding, which includes money from any body set up by the tobacco industry, or in the name of a tobacco brand. In the US, many medical and health schools within universities have divested themselves of all tobacco funding. And the University of California is currently wrangling over whether there should be a blanket ban on tobacco funding in every part of their university system, with a final decision expected in May. 

Despite protests from Pötschke-Langer, Philip Morris Stiftung award-winner Cramer, who is the director of the University of Munich’s Gene Center, sees no problem in accepting the award. ’It is a great honor, as it is one of the most prestigious science awards in the country,’ he told Chemistry World. He added that the award will have no influence on his scientific independence: ’I have been given the award for pure basic science.’ Cramer’s research includes studies of gene transcription and RNA polymerases, highlighting the blurring boundaries between chemistry, biology and medical research..Jutta Rateike, a spokeswoman for the German Research Foundation (DFG), said that the award ’honors scientists for their achievements, it is not connected to tobacco-related research.’ However, Pötschke-Langer insists that ’it is the tobacco company that is giving the prize. It is a marketing affair for Philip Morris.’ 

Follow the money 

So what exactly is the connection between the Foundation and Philip Morris International? In a written response to questions posed by Chemistry World, a Philip Morris Stiftung spokeswoman said that the legal public foundation, which was formed in 1988 and is based in Munich, consists of a Board of Trustees and a Scientific Advisory Board. Two of the eight trustees are executives of Philip Morris GmbH, the German affiliate of Philip Morris International. The spokeswoman did not respond to questions about how the foundation is financed. The contact e-mail address on the legal imprint of the foundation’s website uses the same domain name as the Philip Morris International website, while the foundation’s telephone number is the main switchboard for Philip Morris GmbH. The foundation’s prize jury includes a range of scientists who appear not to be affiliated with Philip Morris GmbH, along with Dettmar Delbos, director of corporate affairs for Philip Morris GmbH. 

Wolfram Koch, executive director of the German Chemical Society (GDCh), says his organisation has no official position on such awards. Keith Dobson, chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Ethical Practices Committee, said that decisions about funding sources were a matter of conscience for individual scientists, ’as long as the awarding of such research funding is done in a transparent, open and lawful manner, and the ultimate source of funding is clear in any publication of results.’ Universities UK suggests only that the universities it represents should carefully consider whether funding from any source would be detrimental to their reputation. Gerhard Ecker, secretary of the executive committee of the European Federation for Medicinal Chemistry, says the EFMC does not have an official policy on such awards. ’In my personal opinion, accepting grants and awards from industry is always a double-edged sword and has to be decided case by case carefully, considering good scientific practice and ethics,’ says Ecker, of the University of Vienna, Austria. ’However, as long as the public funding of universities in Europe is so disastrous, scientists are dependent on money from industry to be competitive.’