Buying Respectability

Imagine that you're a company that is increasingly besieged by complaints that your heavily advertised junk foods and sugary drinks are contributing to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. The First Lady has even gotten into the act, making "eating healthy" a personal priority. Naturally, the company wants to neutralize public criticisms about its unhealthy products and refurbish its corporate image.

What better way than to buy a slice of respectability and high-minded objectivity from an Ivy League school -- say, Yale University?

That’s exactly what PepsiCo did recently when it announced that it would fund a graduate fellowship in nutritional science at the Yale School of Medicine. The masters or PhD student will explore "obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome." The depressing part is, Yale was only too eager to play along and sell its name for peanuts. It will receive $250,000 over the course of five years. For this, the dean of Yale School of Medicine, Robert Alpern, praised "PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition" and called PepsiCo's partnership with Yale "a visionary investment in the future of science."

Now, corporate grants to universities are hardly novel, and the PepsiCo grant is hardly the most egregious. Yet this grant does exemplify a troubling trend for our times -- academia's willingness to sell its moral authority and independence to corporations with an agenda.

Oh no, you've got it all wrong! Yale officials insist. The dean told the Yale Alumni Magazine that "there has been a huge disconnect between perception and reality" when it comes to this donation. "There are numerous safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our research." PepsiCo will not choose the student chosen for the fellowship, nor will it oversee the research or whether and where it is published.

There, doesn't that make you feel more comfortable with the deal? The explanation brings to mind the protestations by U.S. Senators that campaign contributions from Exxon, BP and PepsiCo don't influence their votes; they simply help the CEOs get "access" to make their views known.

At Yale, the obesity/diabetes grant will surely give PepsiCo a fair hearing for future partnership opportunities at Yale. One can imagine a scenario, for example, in which PepsiCo might find additional money for other purposes -- perhaps an endowed chair for nutritional science or bigger, more serious projects. PepsiCo has already opened up a new research lab at Science Park in New Haven at which it hopes “to develop healthier products.” Science Park has extensive relationships with many Yale schools and faculty members. What better way for PepsiCo to signal to Yale that it's ready to explore new, mutually beneficial "partnerships"?

Whatever may develop, PepsiCo has secured all sorts of solid-gold PR for a mere $50,000 a year. It can truthfully say that it is helping Yale researchers learn about the causes of obesity and diabetes because -- gosh, darn! -- we at PepsiCo care about these problems. The grant is surely part of the company's larger strategy to show its social conscience -- such as its new donation program to local organizations dedicated to health, education and the environment.

I don't doubt the honesty of the dean of the Yale Medical School; the student researcher will probably work independently. But that's not really the point. The $50,000/year could be flushed down a toilet and it has already served PepsiCo well by letting it claim a research grant to an Ivy League institution for a socially worthy cause. That’s why Yale reassurances about “no harm, no foul” are frankly insulting. PepsiCo spends more than $1 billion a year to market its products, many of which are major contributors to obesity and diabetes. Does the dean really think that a $50,000 a year fellowship grant represents "a commitment to improving health through proper nutrition" and "a visionary investment in the future of science"? Pepsi probably couldn't have gotten Lady Gaga to make such a claim for less than half a mill, but Yale is willing to say it for $50,000! That's money well spent!

One reason of the great virtues of university research is that it is produced by researchers committed to openness, independence and objectivity, and not motivated by commercial gain. The PepsiCo grant shows how cheaply Yale (estimated endowment of $16.3 billion in 2009) is willing to rent its reputation. Even a writer in the Wall Street Journal — a long-time apologist for corporate influence-peddling — noted that “when a business gets its name worked into the academic fabric of a school… [t]here is the implication that the firm is a partner in the intellectual enterprise.”

PepsiCo's new socially responsible marketing program, the Pepsi Refresh Project, asks, "What Do You Care About?" Me? I care about the integrity of academic research. Yale University: I'm sure you will understand if I regard the findings of medical research associated with your name with greater skepticism in the future.