The cash has been accepted over three years by the MRC's Neurochemical Pathology Unit in Newcastle-upon-Tyne towards a pounds 200,000 a year project aimed establishing whether nicotine increases or decreases the development of age-related brain damage in conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
The "donation" from British American Tobacco (BAT) was accepted by the unit last year. But council members, who include Sir Kenneth Calman, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, were not been told about it and there appear to have been bitter divisions within the MRC over whether money which some as "tainted" should have been accepted.
The decision to take the cash was yesterday condemned as "unwise" and an "own goal", by Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of council of the British Medical Association. The Imperial Cancer Research Fund said it was "surprised and disappointed" that the state-funded research council had accepted the cash.
Dr Macara noted that news of the donation followed the pounds 1.6m which BAT has given for a chair of international relations at Cambridge University, and the detailing in yesterday's Observer newspaper of links between overseas development bodies and the new chairman of BAT Industries, Lord Cairns. Dr Macara said the industry was "desperately seeking respectability as it targets the next generation of smokers, and smokers in the developing world ... They are seeking to compromise the intellectuals, and especially where there's a medical element involved."
Mary Rice, the MRC's head of public communications who is on holiday in France was quoted by The Sunday Times yesterday as saying she had opposed acceptance of the money. "I thought it would be seriously damaging to the MRC's reputation as an impartial source of scientific knowledge. I put this in writing but was overruled."
Nick Winterton, the MRC's administrative secretary, said yesterday the cash had been accepted under a clear framework which states that outside funding must not influence the science, and that the work would anyway have been funded by the MRC if it had the cash. The BAT money was just one of "hundreds" of such outside sources of finance, although the only one currently involving tobacco money. The decision to take BAT's cash had been "a difficult one" debated between the unit and head office staff, who had been satisfied the rules had been followed.
Given the criticism, however, "we will be looking at how such future agreements might be pursued. We would be anxious to avoid any suggestion that the work itself could be in any way influenced by the source of funds. If people perceive that to be happening, even if it is not the case and we do not believe it to be the case here, then obviously we would have to rethink. The perception is itself a serious cause for concern."
Richard Peto, co-director of the ICRF and MRC Epidemiology Unit in Oxford and a leading specialist on the health effects of smoking, said the habit claims 100,000 lives a year in the UK. "I would like to see a convention which governed the acceptance of such money, together with a ban on all tobacco promotion." The possible beneficial effects of nicotine should be investigated, he said, but preferably not with "tobacco industry money."
BAT was unavailable to comment on the research grant, but a spokesman for BAT Industries denied outright that BAT was seeking to buy influence. That idea was "preposterous".
The MRC said it had a formal policy of supplementing public cash with money from other sources "where this does not conflict with its mission" or "compromise the scientific integrity of the work". BAT's funding had been subject to strict conditions, the council said, including one that BAT may not make reference to the research findings without the MRC's written consent. It was "most unlikely" that would be given, a spokesman said.