Independent research is the centerpiece of academia. Because of protections like the tenure system and, in some cases, autonomy from state governments, universities allow their professors to conduct research free from outside influences and fear of the repercussions of their work. But as many universities shift from dependence on state funding to reliance on private donations, a new layer of complexity is added to universities’ relationship to private industry and donors — one that calls for more transparency and accountability, including here at the University of Michigan.

The latest example of this delicate situation came earlier this month in a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about University of Michigan Prof. Martin Philbert and his connections with private donor Charles Gelman. Philbert is the director and co-founder of the University’s Risk Science Center. He is also chairman of a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel expected to release a much-anticipated study soon about the risks of the controversial chemical bisphenol A, which is used to make numerous plastic products, including baby bottles.

This summer, Charles Gelman, who has publicly stated he believes BPA is perfectly safe and whose firm, Gelman Instrument Company, was embroiled in an expensive chemical cleanup during the 1980’s, donated $5 million to the Risk Science Center. Philbert didn’t disclose the donation to the FDA, though he argues he didn’t have to because it was a gift to the University, not to him. Further complicating the matter, Gelman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he talked with Philbert several times about BPA— conversations that, to his credit, Philbert says he scrupulously avoided once they came up.

As it stands, the situation boils down to a he-said-she-said, and the FDA is now getting involved to investigate the extent of the relationship. That explicitly doesn’t mean Philbert did anything wrong. But the concerns raised in this complicated case point to the consequences of universities’ new funding model.

In essence, the University is now a privately financed public university. While state appropriations supported about 75 percent of the general fund 40 years ago, today they account for less than 20 percent. And when the state was footing most of the bill, the University was protected by its constitutional autonomy (as it still is) from serving the narrow interests of state government.

But now that private donors have replaced taxpayers, the rules are changing. Private donors have always placed a role in funding the University. But the unique situation now is the volume of those donations, and the increased complexity of the relationships that may underlie them. Philbert’s potential conflict of interest with Gelman exemplifies this complexity perfectly: Where exactly is the ethical line drawn when the University is a potential intermediary between donor and researcher if the researcher’s interests or organizations stand to benefit?

The first layer of the solution is for state government to renew their commitment to their universities, especially here in Michigan. But absent that, the University, like other universities across the country, should nip these problems in the bud. They should be aggressive in preserving the integrity of their research and the perception of it. That means setting clear boundaries, policing them and even turning away some donors if needed.

If universities don’t, they risk compromising their greatest strength: their independent research.

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