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. …