HKUST has taken $1m from Philip Morris but failed to address concerns over its acceptance of the research funds Hong Kong's university heads have declined opportunities to address public concerns that they expose top academics to undue influence from cigarette companies by accepting tobacco-backed research funds. The $1 million that the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology took from Philip Morris over the past three years is a small part of the US$50 million the cigarette giant pumps into universities around the world each year. Anti-smoking lobbyists believe that such funding, donated through Philip Morris' external research programme, is intended to reduce public concerns about smoking. Paul Morris, convenor of the Hong Kong Heads of Universities Committee, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed, since he was 'busy for the next two weeks'. A Hong Kong University of Science and Technology spokeswoman said its president, Paul Chu Ching-wu, was not available as he was on leave for personal reasons. The committee has said it would not allow tobacco funding of its members to aid in the promotion of cigarettes, but has ignored calls by lobby groups to ban tobacco funding entirely. Tobacco funding of lung cancer research is condemned by Cancer Research UK, which has issued a code of practice to universities in Britain. The World Health Organisation also issued a similar code to health professionals in January. However, Philip Morris' Asia vice-president for corporate affairs, Andrew White, brushed aside the concerns. 'It is absolutely a good thing and a critical thing that such research is done,' he said, adding that the purpose of the programme was to help eventually produce cigarettes that are potentially less harmful - an argument that has won over few sceptics among the anti-smoking lobby. He also said that projects funded by the external research programme were entirely transparent and conducted independently without input or involvement from Philip Morris. Research applications were reviewed by the applicants' peers and an eight-member independent scientific advisory board, and scientists were encouraged to publish their research in reputable journals, with the proviso that they disclose their work was supported by the company, Mr White said. However, tobacco-control advocate Judith Mackay warned against taking big tobacco at its word. 'That's not something that quite happens,' she said, pointing to a study published in the British Medical Journal last year that claimed there was no evidence second-hand smoke can be deadly. It was subsequently discovered that the study was funded by a tobacco-industry-backed organisation and the research came under heavy attack. 'I think the time has not yet come to cosy up to the tobacco industry,' Dr Mackay said.