The pounds 147,000 contribution over three years from British American Tobacco (BAT) was originally described by the MRC as a "donation" towards the pounds 200,000 a year research project. It has now emerged that the cash was sought from BAT, not offered by it, and that the MRC approached other tobacco companies during the trawl for money to keep the research programme going.
BAT has refused, however, to disclose which other researchers it is funding, arguing that the scientists themselves often want their projects to remain confidential until the results are published.
The tobacco company also defended its funding position. "People approach us," a BAT spokesman said. "They write in and the idea is referred to our advisers for consideration. We don't go touting for business, offering to give our money away. They approach us."
The MRC has also confirmed that the money for the research programme at the council's Neurochemical Pathology Unit in Newcastle upon Tyne was sought.
Jane Lee, the MRC's director of corporate affairs, said: "You have to remember there was a bit of a crisis at the time." A pharmaceutical company had unexpectedly withdrawn support from the programme, and, without a new source of funds, the unit faced redundancies.
Both the unit and the MRC's technology transfer group, which seeks commercial backers for the MRC's research findings and intellectual properties, "put out feelers" to drug companies and to brokerage companies which can link academic researchers with funding sources, she said. The brokers, she added, would have a portfolio of potential backers, including pharmaceutical and tobacco companies.
The deal with BAT was signed because of all the companies approached, it responded most quickly, Ms Lee said, both in terms of providing the funding and in agreeing the strict conditions on which the cash would be taken.
A spokesman for BAT confirmed that the approach had come from the MRC, and not the other way around. BAT holds a fund of around pounds 500,000 which it spends in universities and other research centres, two-thirds of it in the United Kingdom. Projects range from those directly connected to smoking, to nicotine studies and work on foetal nutrition.
Following the controversy over its acceptance of BAT's money, the MRC's council is expected to initiate a review of the guidelines under which it accepts outside funding, when it meets later this month.
The dilemma that scientists face in the wake of government funding cuts of pounds 400m in capital alone over the next three years was acknowledged last week by Sir Ronald Oxburgh, a former government scientist in the Ministry of Defence and the new president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, whose annual meeting starts today.
Decisions on whether to take the money had to be "personal and private," Sir Ronald said. "If an activity is legal ... then I have to say that when the chips are down I will take money for research from any legal source. There might be some areas which could not stomach it - for example, researchers into lung cancer probably wouldn't want cigarette money."