PR head suspended in tobacco cash row

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The Independent Online
The Medical Research Council has suspended its head of public communications after she revealed her opposition to the MRC taking tobacco cash to study the medical effects of nicotine.

The decision by Britain's leading state funder of medical research to take funds from British American Tobacco has been strongly criticised by doctors, medical scientists and other scientific bodies, such as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Nick Winterton, the MRC's administrative secretary, has admitted that the decision to take the money had been "a difficult one", with the anti- smoking campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) yesterday condemning the decision to suspend Mary Rice as "outrageous". Ms Rice, 49, who has a long track record as a public relations specialist and a Parliamentary lobbyist, has been with the research council for seven years and was credited by friends yesterday as doing "more to bring the MRC's public relations into the Nineties than anyone else".

She was suspended after telling the Sunday Times newspaper last week that she had opposed the decision by the council's Neurochemical Pathology Unit in Newcastle to take the pounds 147,000 "donation" from the tobacco giant.

She told the Sunday Times: "I thought it would be seriously damaging to the MRC's reputation as an impartial source of scientific knowledge. "

Yesterday Ms Rice was refusing to return calls from the media.

But sources at the MRC said it was clear that she had been quoted correctly in the newspaper.

ASH protested that the suspension was unreasonable. "She [Ms Rice] clearly warned the MRC that taking tobacco money would damage its reputation and that is exactly what has happened."

The acceptance of the cash contribution towards a three-year research project studying the beneficial or harmful effects of nicotine in age- related disorders such as Alzheimer's disease is already forcing a rethink over the guidelines under which units of the Medical Research Council are encouraged to seek outside finance.

Nick Winterton, who was on holiday yesterday, told The Independent at the weekend that the guidelines would have to be reviewed following the controversy.

The council - whose members have still not formally been told about the BAT donation - was "anxious to avoid any suggestion" that the MRC's scientific work was being influenced by funding sources, he said.

"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 we would have to rethink. "

Jane Lee, the MRC's Director of Corporate Affairs, said that the decision to suspend Ms Rice followed "some difference of views between management here and Mary about the ramifications of the quote in the story."

Clarification was needed on whether she was speaking personally or as a corporate spokesman, Ms Lee said. A period of paid absence seemed sensible "while we reflect and decide what if anything needs to follow in her best interests and ours".

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