AN INDUSTRIAL tribunal has upheld the Medical Research Council's decision last year to dismiss Mary Rice from her post as head of public communication for publicly criticising the council's decision to accept research money from tobacco giant BAT.
Ms Rice's criticisms were quoted in the Sunday Times, which in August 1996 revealed that the MRC's neurochemical pathology unit had accepted Pounds 147,000 from BAT to study whether nicotine may help combat Alzheimer's disease.
The unit's director, Jim Edwardson, told the paper he regretted taking the money. Ms Rice had been warning officials of the dangers of accepting money from tobacco companies for several years.
The tribunal accepted the MRC's argument that Ms Rice's public criticisms amounted to misconduct, saying that her job description specifically required her to counter any public criticism of the council. Gross misconduct was a conclusion that any reasonable employer might have reached in such a case, the tribunal said.
It also considered whether it was unfair that Ms Rice was disciplined while Professor Edwardson was not. The tribunal said Ms Rice was the MRC's "mouthpiece" and that it was a "reasonable expectation" of her employers that, when required, she should "sell a story" to the media in the way requested.
"Her failure to do so is far more damaging than that of the scientist who had accepted the funding. It would be very difficult to discipline a scientist who has accepted funding and then admitted he regretted doing so," the tribunal said.
Responding to the decision, Ms Rice said the tribunal had failed to understand the nature of her job.
"I was not employed to be 'MRC's mouthpiece', nor simply to 'sell a story' to the media. One of the most important parts of my job was to advise MRC officials of the likely consequences of their actions. My advice in this instance was disregarded, yet the outcome proved me to be correct. The old tradition of shooting the messenger is still going strong."
Ms Rice said the purpose of her action was to bring the question of MRC's accountability into the public domain. "I am only sorry that the taxpayer has had to pay for the MRC's successful attempt to promote totally unjustified secrecy."