Tobacco firm funds British nicotine study

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The Independent Online
A scientist studying the effects of nicotine on brain cells yesterday defended a pounds 100,000 grant she has received from British American Tobacco - one of the world's biggest cigarette producers - towards the costs of her research .

Susan Wonnacott said scientists were forced to accept such grants because rejecting them would starve Britain's future science base, by denying experience to graduate scientists.

Last week, the announcement that BAT had funded work by the Medical Research Council looking at the effects of nicotine on disorders such as Alzheimer's disease caused a huge row, leading to condemnation by senior academics and expressions of regret by researchers at the MRC.

In her laboratory at the University of Bath's School of Biology and Biochemistry, Dr Wonnacott said: "I think most people would prefer not to take grants that can be misconstrued by the public. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to try to maintain a career structure for graduate scientists".

The two-year grant of pounds 100,000 from BAT, which runs out this month, was about 15 per cent of her overall costs - "enough to employ one postdoctoral scientist."

Dr Wonnacott is one of a handful of scientists in the country doing detailed work on nicotine's effects. It is an enormously specialist field, but could yield knowledge about addiction, the treatment of a wide range of illnesses, and even why some things please us and others don't.

Without the funding, she could not have employed the scientist to assist on the project. "We're in something of a cleft stick in universities, because there are so few sources of funding," she said. "Government cutbacks have made life so difficult. Suppose you've got a laboratory where a post- doctoral scientist is working for three or four years, and your grant is coming to an end. If you can keep them in employment by getting an industry grant, you do."

But such rows now seem inevitable. Industrial funding of university research has more than tripled in the past decade, following repeated cuts by the Government in the grants made to universities. Some are now uneasy about the possible distortions of science that might follow. The MRC's involvement with BAT is only the most recent example.

Many scientists are worried about the fact that industrial sponsors may try to influence, or even block, the publication of research they have funded but whose results they find uncomfortable. A frequently cited case is that of Boots and the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF).

Last year, Boots blocked the publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of a paper written by a UCSF scientist whose study it had funded since 1989.

The scientist was investigating whether a drug made by Boots's pharmaceuticals arm to treat a metabolic disorder called hypothyroidism offered any advantage over cheaper alternatives made by other companies. The study concluded that it did not, and that US health costs could be cut by $356m annually.

However, Boots objected to the work and used a clause in its funding contract with the UCSF scientist - specifying that publication could only follow Boots's written consent - to block the publication of the paper in JAMA, despite the journal having carefully checked the quality of the study and deciding that it met scientific standards.

The paper has never been published and Boots subsequently sold off its pharmaceuticals arm. Last week, its UK head office said it no longer sponsors research in uni- versities.

UK university advisers are aware of the potential pitfalls. "I'm sure most people have taken the Boots case as an example of what can happen if they don't take great care," said Jane Lee, corporate affairs director of the MRC. "It illustrates the traps you can fall into."

The MRC and Dr Wonnacott insist that BAT's funding contract is not onerous. "There are no strings attached - not on the research itself or on publication, nor did they demand to be acknowledged in any paper I write, or to see the publication in advance," she said.

So far, there has been no instance in the UK of a dispute like that between Boots and the USCF, according to Michael Powell, policy adviser at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which advises universities. "Certainly, universities here are aware of these issues, and try to ensure that these things are sorted out at the contract stage," he said.

The funding of research by tobacco companies seems likely to rumble on. "The smoking debate arouses a lot of passions that make it seem black and white," said Dr Wonnacott. "But there are greyer aspects in doing research."