Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Medical Research Council


  1.1  The Medical Research Council welcomes this opportunity to contribute to the Science and Technology Committee's deliberations on Realising Our Potential and the proposed Science and Innovation White Paper. A great deal of progress has been made since 1993 in addressing the concerns that prevailed then:

    —  the UK has, in OST, a proper mechanism for handling science policy and funding issues across government;

    —  there is greater clarity about the strategic roles of the Research Councils;

    —  funding for the biomedical science base is now oriented towards more stable, multidisciplinary structures with greater critical mass;

    —  there are more opportunities for young biomedical researchers to obtain longer term positions, through personal awards and grants;

    —  new partnerships between the science base and users, and between funders have formed, providing greater returns on investment;

    —  pathways for commercial exploitation of publicly funded science have been greatly enhanced;

    —  science has, for better and sometimes for worse, achieved a higher profile in people's minds, and most scientists now give a higher priority to explaining their work to non-scientific audiences, and are more skilled at communications.

  Some of the changes made by MRC since 1993 are discussed in more detail below. The bulk of this submission, however, considers the facts, viewpoints, and concerns that need to be taken into account in developing UK science policy for the future. In some areas, such as the attractiveness of scientific careers, there is still a great deal more to do to ensure the UK can maintain and exploit its international pre-eminence in science, and in other areas, such as public understanding of science, it is time to acknowledge the limitations of the approaches emphasised in Realising Our Potential.

  1.2  Our comments below are in six sections:

    (2)  Research Council's governance, leadership and strategies.

    (3)  Scientists' training and careers.

    (4)  Ways of supporting the science base.

    (5)  Exploitation and Application.

    (6)  The public's relationship with science.

    (7)  International science.

  1.3  Given the range of issues covered by the enquiry, it is only possible to offer a summary of MRC's viewpoint here. We would be happy to elaborate on any of the topics, orally or in writing, or to provide supporting data.


The Office of Science and Technology

2.1  With hindsight, the formation of an Office of Science and Technology to replace ABRC was justified. OST has provided a focal point for discussion of science issues within government, and has helped deliver clearer and more decisive proposals in spending reviews. It has a role that is essential to a country seeking a knowledge based economy and modern, effective public services.

  2.2  The presence of OST has also helped to facilitate joint initiatives across Research Council boundaries. Co-operation to rationalise London Offices, develop common systems of grants payment administration, share internal audit function, and co-operating in procurement, have all helped improve Council'' administrative efficiency. Especially since the 1997 Comprehensive Spending Review, OST has also developed strategies to encourage and aid scientific co-operation (see below).

  2.3  The disadvantages of having a more centralised science administration are that lines of communication between science and Government are longer and more complex, and that the relative roles of the various parts of OST (and relevant parts of DTI) and the Research Councils are sometimes obscure. The presence of OST has meant that Research Councils are less likely to be consulted in policy debates, even when the issue depends on consideration of specifics that vary between research sectors, rather than general policies and trends. There is also an increased tendency for other organisations to see Research Councils as simply a section of Government, rather than as bodies that can assemble and distil distinct and independent advice from a broad cross-section of stakeholders, which is not easily accessible to a central office. These problems may be felt more acutely by MRC than by other Research Councils, partly because stability over the last few decades has allowed us to develop a very strong role in representing and leading the medical research sector, and partly because medical research strategy has to address the rapidly growing charity sector, and national health needs and health service structures, as well as more general policy issues.

The mission and role of Research Councils

  2.4  The White Paper's principles for public sector research funding, and the organisation of Research Councils, have proved sound. At the same time as highlighting the importance of user relevance and strategic decision-making, the Paper restated the Haldane principle that detailed decisions on scientific strategy and research funding should be taken by Research Councils rather than by government. It also re-affirmed the need for scientific excellence as the prerequisite for public sector funding—"second rate research is a poor buy"—and that the main role of public funding should be in supporting basic and strategic research. These principles have continued to be applied in practice, and have served the UK well. They should remain central to UK science policy.

  2.5  At the time of the White Paper, during the 1994-95 Technology Foresight exercise, and when OST moved from the Cabinet office to OST, many people in the science-based industry expressed fears that research funding would be more centrally directed, and oriented to short-term industry needs for applied research, rather than longer term goals of innovativeness and social benefit. These fears were not realised, but consumed a considerable amount of time and energy that could have been avoided by more considered and consistent explanation of policy at the outset.

  2.6  The White Paper defined six mission-oriented Research Councils, in order to allow vertical integration between basic and strategic or applied research in each sector, and to ensure policies were tailored flexibly to the needs of each sector and it stakeholders. Trends since 1997, and in particular the pace of progress in genetics and molecular biology, means that vertical integration with functional and clinical studies is more important now than ever before. Vertical integration is central to our strategies for the Post-genome Challenge and Health of the Public. At the same time, a high proportion of MRC's most important activities involve developing policies and practices that are specific to the needs of the biomedical sector. These include:

    —  MRC's funding schemes, which use Centre Grants and Co-operative Grants to support infrastructure, and build multidisciplinary and vertically integrated groupings with critical mass.

    —  MRC's work with the Health Departments on research support in the new NHS.

    —  MRC's training and career schemes, which take account of the highly competitive international employment market for biomedical researchers, and the special needs of researchers who are also doctors (or other health professionals).

    —  Progress in technology transfer, where the ability of biomedical industry to exploit basic research findings leads to approaches that are very different to those in other sectors.

    —  MRC's role in strengthening high quality, responsible clinical research by developing operational and ethical guidelines.

  Each of the other Research Councils works with similar, sector specific issues, ranging from the challenge of delivering access to extraordinarily costly facilities needed for atomic structure research, to the challenge of promoting knowledge transfer from social and economic research to practice and policy.

MRC's strategic decision-making

  2.7  A major theme of Realising Our Potential was the need for clear strategies and priorities in funding research and training, and for these policies to reflect user needs, and to be as explicit and open as possible. MRC already took a strategic approach to research management—for example, in developing Health Services Research through the 1980s and in pump priming the Human Genome effort in the UK. Since 1993 we have developed this further:

    —  internally, we strengthened planning mechanisms, and refined our tactics for implementing strategic initiatives;

    —  we maintained formal Concordats with the Health Departments and the Department for International Development (then ODA) (highlighted as a model in Realising Our Potential), which have had an important input to MRC priorities, and established new Concordats with MAFF, DETR, DTI, and MOD;

    —  we strengthened industry representation on MRC committees;

    —  we produced more accessible and user-friendly definitions for scientific strategy and funding priorities, and published them on the Web.

  The move to a three-year funding cycle within government has also helped longer-term planning.


  2.8  Partnerships with other funders is now a pervasive feature of our strategic planning. For example MRC has:

    —  worked with The Wellcome Trust on some major projects, including the development of the Sanger Centre and the current plans for a National Biomedical Collection of up to 500,000 donated DNA samples. We co-ordinate activities with The Wellcome Trust in many other areas;

    —  developed closer links with the research charities, most notably to establish the MRC/Cancer Research Campaign Collaboration in Cambridge in 1999.

    —  participated in new cross-Research Council initiatives, such as funding for centres in tissue engineering and medical informatics, and new programmes for research in metrology, to encourage physical science graduates to develop careers in biomedical research, and studies of the social, organisational, and economic impacts of new health technologies.

    —  established closer operational links with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and agreed a Concordat with the Welsh Assembly which encompasses their University funding policies.

    —  facilitated or led agreements on large-scale, long-term industry funding for centres of excellence in areas such as vaccines research, imaging, mouse models of gene function, and cell signalling—investments which are likely to be more valuable to the economy and to the science base than more dispersed, smaller scale contracts.

  2.8  Some of these partnerships are the result of a natural tendency for scientific fields to merge to create new opportunities—such as the opportunities emerging in biomedical informatics. However, these partnerships also play other important roles, helping vertical integration of basic and applied research in areas where MRC and charities support complementary programmes, and creating centres with greater critical mass than would otherwise be possible.


  2.9  MRC supported the principle of Technology Foresight when the White Paper was launched, and we gave substantial support to the creation and work of the Health and Life Sciences panel. Following the completion of the exercise, we built the Technology Foresight reports into our 1995 strategy review, launched two new LINK programmes, and helped develop new Foresight Challenge collaborations.

  2.10  Our assessment of the impact of the national Foresight programme in the biomedical sector is that the programme has played a part in a general improvement in academic/industry co-operation and technology transfer. It helped define and validate the main strands of thought on research priorities current at the time, helping to raise the profile of the "integrative biology" principle, and of research relevant to ageing. Especially through Foresight Challenge, it prompted some collaborations to emerge more quickly and with more commitment than might otherwise have been the case.

  But overall, Foresight has had only a moderate impact on the health sector. There were already good academic-user links in place in the biomedical sector, built on the strong research-orientation of the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, and the applicability of basic medical research. We found there was a close match between MRC strategy and Foresight recommendations, and by 1996, our estimate was that at least two-thirds of our research and training investments were broadly relevant to Foresight themes.

  2.11  There can be no doubt, as far as MRC is concerned, that research funders must have forward looking strategies and plans developed in consultation with researchers and users—both to ensure the quality and relevance of the research, and to facilitate uptake. Key industries and other users in our sector place a similar value on vision and strategic planning, even if the full panoply of formal foresight methods are not always used.

  2.12  The decision to undertake a second round of Foresight was undoubtedly the right one, and it is encouraging that the Foresight 2000 programme includes societal benefits and problems from science and technology more explicitly, and has more time and resources available. The indications are that it should be able to contribute more than the 1994/95 exercise: MRC will be taking account of the outputs in our strategy discussion in Autumn 2000. In the longer term, the key questions will be whether national, centrally directed, Foresight programmes are the best way of developing strategic vision and partnerships, and if so, how often they should be conducted.

Regional Networks

  2.13  The Science and Innovation Strategy consultation paper discusses regional networks both in the context of fostering clusters of innovative enterprises, and in the context of ensuring manufacturing companies have access to relevant expertise from the science base.

  2.14  Incubators and knowledge transfer activities in the life sciences can certainly be an effective long-term investment by Regional Development Agencies. MRC's Scottish Collaborative Centre was developed within partnership with Scottish Enterprise, for instance. However, the added value from partial regional management of academic-industry links in the biomedical sector will not be as high as in some other sectors. In the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector, most successful companies tend to cluster in regions with first-rate research Universities, and without a strong science base, the return on regional investment will be poor. Moreover, companies in the sector typically have a strong in-house R&D capacity, and are highly effective at making and developing contacts in the science base, and so less likely to need help in finding advice. We would advise giving national knowledge transfer initiatives a higher priority in this sector.

  2.15  The interface between the health services and research has a stronger regional dimension. High quality clinical research in a particular condition will often depend on the presence of a substantial patient group, and first rate diagnostic and treatment facilities and services. And new research findings are most likely to be applied first in those centres that have been directly engaged in the research. MRC sees a need to develop joint strategies, involving MRC, the NHS R&D programme, NHS regions, and, often, charities, to foster centres or networks of research and service excellence in particular diseases, to ensure the combination of expertise, commitment, infrastructure and funding needed for rapid innovation. We will be discussing with the Health Departments how these ideas can be developed further.


  3.1  Realising Our Potential highlighted the fact that excessive reliance on short-term contracts to support younger researchers would weaken confidence in research careers, and reduce the productivity of some of the UK's most innovative researchers.

  Since then:

    —  Research Councils, Funding Councils, the Royal Society, and CVCP have agreed (1996) a Concordat on Contract Research Staff setting out the standards expected in terms of career advice, training, maternity arrangements and other areas. Monitoring implementation suggests there have been modest improvements in provision and take-up of this broader support for contract staff.

    —  MRC has expanded funding for Fellowships and other personal awards, such as Research Professorships, to provide a wider range of career paths at all levels.

    —  the MRC funding schemes introduced in 1997 provide the bulk of grant funding either as long-term (5 year) awards, or as components of long-term support for Centres and Co-operatives which provide a more stable research environment and a wider range of career development opportunities for scientists and technical support staff than was previously the case.

    —  a new Career Establishment Grant was also introduced in 1997, providing five years grant support for younger researchers who have recently been given their first university appointment. This scheme is intended to ensure new academic staff have an opportunity to concentrate on developing research programmes to the point where they can compete for funding with more established teams, and has proved very popular.

    —  MRC Units and Institutes have continued to provide parallel career paths for those wishing to concentrate on a full-time research career.

  3.2  Despite the steps taken, we remain concerned about the attractiveness of academic research careers. The Science and Innovation Strategy consultation paper rightly states that the overall volume of scientists trained in the UK is adequate. The threats, however, are that research will fail to attract enough of the highest quality graduates, and that in highly competitive areas, such as genetics and bioinformatics, UK universities and research centres will not be able to recruit and retain enough first-rate researchers.

  3.3  At postgraduate level, we need to consider further increases in the stipend, even if this means reductions in the numbers of PhD students supported. In attracting and developing the people who will lead UK science in the future, quality has to be more important than quantity. MRC is planning a widespread consultation exercise on the exact changes needed over the coming months.

  3.4  The recommendations of the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions (the Bett Committee) are being considered as part of SR2000. MRC supports the case for increases in national minimum salaries, but we also see a need for greater flexibility for individual universities (and other employers) to vary pay to reflect the recruitment and retention problems in particular research or teaching areas. In the biomedical sector, there is strong competition from industry and from the USA, and while the flow of talent into industry is highly desirable, in some areas, such as bioinformatics, the difficulty of retaining first rate people in academic research will compromise universities' capacity for leading edge research and research training.

  3.5  A fresh look at universities' employment policies and manpower planning could also help make research careers more attractive by providing greater stability for staff on fixed term contracts. It should be possible to offer longer term contracts, and more active career management, to at least some of those currently employed on a series of short-term contracts.

The PhD

  3.6  Realising Our Potential proposed the widespread introduction of Masters-level research training before a PhD, as a way of broadening post-graduate learning that offered more flexibility than a four-year PhD. Since 1993, developments in research and in employers' needs, and reductions in the amount of practical laboratory experience in some first degrees, have strengthened the case for four-year post-graduate training programmes. While Realising Our Potential emphasised the need for transferable skills, such as communications, teamworking and project management, post-doctoral researchers also now need competence in a much broader repertoire of research approaches and techniques than in the past.

  3.7  Our pilot Research Masters programme have been successful, and we are now considering how to broaden provision. However, we expect that there will always remain a substantial proportion of graduates who will be able to complete a high quality PhD within three years, and there will be fields in which this is more common than in others. Our policy will be to offer options that are adaptable to individual circumstances.

International recruitment

  3.8  For much of the last century, the UK's reputation for outstanding medical research, coupled with a healthy level of research funding from public funds and charities, meant that it was able to attract many of the best scientists from around the world to work here. Most other OECD countries have been strengthening their investment in biomedical research over the last two decades, and the UK cannot rest on its laurels. At the same time the higher costs of establishing research programmes and Universities' difficulties in offering start-up funding made moves to the UK less attractive and more cumbersome.

  3.9  The UK now needs to sustain a more active approach to bringing in new people and ideas. After the last Spending Review, MRC created a new fast-track funding mechanism to make it easier for VCs to bring people from other countries to the UK. Six appointments have been made using the scheme in the past year, and in addition two scientists from abroad have come to the UK to head major MRC units. MRC will continue both approaches, and expects to make further awards this year.


  4.1  MRC's policies for supporting the science base have continued to evolve rapidly since 1993, and new response mode funding schemes were introduced in 1997. The new schemes—in particular Centre and Co-operative Group Grants—facilitate the development of multidisciplinary groupings; help develop more stable research groups with critical mass; and deliver infrastructure support more effectively. At the same time Innovation Grants, Development Grants, Career Establishment Grants, and other personal awards, help ensure that greater stability is not achieved at the expense of opportunities for new talent and ideas to develop.

  4.2  Selective funding of excellent, relevant research remains a central policy, but selectivity does not require us to concentrate a higher proportion of funds in a few research-intensive universities. Co-operative Group Grants have been awarded to universities which have, overall, relatively few research active staff who were highly rated in the RAE, but where there is a concentration of excellence in a particular field. In these universities, the Co-operative Group Grants can deliver infrastructure support, that is not available from the Funding Councils, as well as raising the visibility of the research.

  4.3  Critical mass, selective and efficient use of infrastructure funding, stability, and multidisciplinarity are also achieved through partnerships. MRC's Centre Grants and Development Grants provide opportunities to strengthen strategic leadership in university research, and MRC hopes that strategies for scientific direction, investment and recruitment developed in partnership will help make better use of research funds.

  4.4  MRC has also acted to strengthen multidisciplinary research through partnerships with other Research Councils, and its investment in people—such as our initiative to attract physical scientists to careers in biomedical research.

  4.5  In parallel, MRC officials worded with HEFCE in successive reviews of the Research Assessment Exercise, advising on options for re-structuring the Medical Units of Assessment to reflect better the multi-disciplinary nature of modern research, and on options for improving assessment of applied clinical and public health research. The current fundamental review of the RAE may give opportunities for an even more flexible assessment system.

MRC Units and Institutes

  4.6  Realising Our Potential suggested that some of the research establishments supported by government departments might be suitable candidates for privatisation. The review of Public Sector Research Establishments that followed, and the subsequent Prior Options reviews, broadened the scope of their inquiry to include some Research Council establishments. Here, the question posed was usually whether the establishment could not be equally well run by a university, rather than as part of the public sector. The reviews confirmed that:

    —  Units and Institutes can have a key role in complementing University research work by creating focused, mission-oriented research teams, with effective scientific leadership and professionally managed facilities and supporting infrastructure.

    —  MRC's management of its Units and Institutes is effective, using stringent peer review, and recycling from lower priority areas, to maintain internationally competitive research programmes. MRC Units have a typical (median) life-span of about 20 years.

    —  MRC's strategy of placing Units and Institutes on campus, and encouraging close links with University research, benefits both parties.

  4.7  Nevertheless MRC recognises the importance of thinking radically and laterally when reviewing major investments. For example we are replacing direct funding for key imaging facilities and techniques development with joint public/industrial funding through a newly formed company. Our Strategy Development Group addresses the fundamental questions about MRC's role in a particular field, and the rationale for future direct ownership of research centres, in advance of each quinquennial review of every MRC establishment.


  5.1  Realising Our Potential put more emphasis on meeting the needs of industry through collaboration, co-ordination and Foresight, than on improving exploitation of the science base, or developing industry's capacity for innovation. Where it addressed exploitation (2.9-2.19) it emphasised access to public sector R&D by industry, rather than work by the research community to overcome the development gap and get scientific advances into practice, or, indeed, the innovativeness of UK industry. Nevertheless, some of the most impressive changes since 1993 have been in the way we facilitate commercial exploitation of academic knowledge and discoveries. Across the UK science base, awareness of commercial exploitation issues, and the commitment and professionalism with which it is pursued, have all greatly improved.

  5.2  Within MRC, progress in exploiting the science in our Units and Institutes has included:

    —  continuing the development of our central Technology Transfer Group, which in 1999 was formed into a company, MRC Technology;

    —  forming the UK Medical Ventures Fund in 1998, with £40 million raised entirely from private sector investors, on the strength of MRC's track record in science and exploitation, to support start-ups and other ventures based on MRC technology;

    —  helping set up spin-out companies. There are now 13 companies in operation which were formed by MRC, which will directly employ over 380 people in 2000, almost all in high-skill jobs;

    —  expanding revenue from IPR licensing. In 1999-2000 income was £7.6 million, compared with £0.8 million in 1993-4. A major part of this revenue is from "humanised" monoclonal antibody technology which is being used successfully by a wide range of biotech and pharmaceuticals companies in new therapies for breast cancer, infections, organ rejection, and other conditions.

    —  forming a Scottish Collaborative Centre to act as an incubator for new ventures and collaborations from MRC research in the region.

  5.3  MRC's exploitation track record since 1993 confirms that the principle of keeping fundamental and applied research within MRC's remit was right. The most successful spin-out companies and patents have been based on some of our most basic and original scientific research, but this could not have been exploited without specialised knowledge of the medical sector. MRC's size, and centralised exploitation team has also allowed us to "bundle together" intellectual property from different sources to create stronger commercial opportunities.

  5.4  The UK, however, still lags behind the USA in the vigour with which it exploits its scientific excellence. Some of this may be simply because the UK entered the race later than the USA, and still has a relatively small pool of entrepreneurial expertise. But there is also still a more visible "development gap" in the UK than in the USA. By "development gap" we mean the stage at which academic research has produced potentially exploitable findings, and enough evidence to publish an important scientific paper, but where further work is needed before commercial investors can be convinced—for instance, it may be necessary to prove the results are applicable in enough situations to be commercially interesting. This can entail a substantial amount of work and expense—perhaps 6-18 months' commitment from an experienced post-doctoral scientist. Only a couple of the UK's venture capital funds are prepared to invest at this early stage. The many public funding schemes designed to promote knowledge transfer are typically targeted to support collaborations with existing commercial work, incubators, or entrepreneurial skill development, but direct funding of this risky seedcorn stage is limited: indeed the 1993 White Paper emphasised that public funds should normally be reserved for more basic research, and did not envisage exceptions in this area. MRC can sometimes provide seedcorn funding at this stage—this has been a function of our Collaborative Centres from the outset—but the sums available from MRC and through university incubators can only meet a fraction of the demand. We consider there is a strong case for additional public funding in this area: rather than add to the large number of special, targeted schemes already in existence, the funds should flow through existing mechanisms with the capacity to judge scientific merit and to quickly bring scientific expertise to bear on particular problems—ie through universities and Research Councils.

  5.5  This is not the same as saying that the UK is generally weak at applied research. There are many areas of applied research—such as public sector clinical trials and health services research—in which the UK science base is internationally outstanding. Here MRC and the Department of Health have played a leading role in developing standards over the last 10 years, and while we find that UK academic culture and university funding systems sometimes undervalue such work, these areas of research have not developed more quickly in other countries. The issue is rather whether past policies on the role of public funding at the academic/industry interface have been over-cautious.

  5.6  The Science and Innovation Strategy consultation paper also discusses the balance between investment in basic technology and basic science. Recent developments in generic research technology—such as PCR, monoclonal antibodies, confocal microscopy, micro-arrays, bioinformatics, and imaging—are currently driving the pace of progress in the biomedical research sector, and research technologies often find early application in clinical practice. The pattern of development is often different to that in other sectors, however. New technologies—such as monoclonal antibodies or confocal microscopy—often emerge from very basic, curiosity led research programmes, sometimes at first as a means to an end, rather than with the aim of developing a new technology. The time between concept and application can also be particularly short: the gap between MRC funding for Professor Southern's work that led to micro-array technology and its world-wide use in genome research was less than ten years. So while MRC provides substantial funding to research that is intended to develop new generic technologies, or does so serendipitously, there is often no firm divide between technology development and mainstream biomedical research.

  5.7  Application of MRC research in the health service and other public services raises a different set of issues, which are equally important. In a small number of areas, new medical technologies are likely to be developed from initial concept through to clinical application almost entirely in the public and charitable sectors. This is likely to be the case for some gene therapy applications, immunotherapies, transplants, and vaccines. In these areas, there is a need to develop university infrastructure and research management skills, and clinical facilities to allow the effective management of the more complex R&D process, and to ensure safety. This need can best be met by focussed investment in a relatively small number of centres of excellence—MRC is already funding such developments, but further investment will be needed.

  5.8  In most cases, however, the need is for knowledge transfer to inform health policies or medical practice. The Department of Health has led the way in developing the Cochrane Collaboration, NICE, and other bodies to assist the development of evidence-basic practice. There is still some scope for improvement, however. In particular, all of these activities depend on the time of university staff, MRC staff, and NHS staff, in assembling and assessing the scientific evidence, and the UK needs to ensure that university funding models, and academic career paths give sufficient incentives for public-sector knowledge transfer activities.


  6.1  Realising Our Potential emphasised the value to the country as a whole of a more scientifically- and technologically-informed population, and encouraged new initiatives to complement the many schemes already in existence. Science teaching in schools was also recognised as critical, not only to the general science-literacy of society, but as the source of knowledge, inspiration, and careers information for future generations of researchers.

  6.2  Since 1993, the commitment of most biomedical researchers to communicating their work to wider audiences has undoubtedly increased, as has the quality of their presentation. Most also recognise the need to go beyond communicating science, to engagement in dialogue about the potential impact of the application of their work on society, individuals and the environment.

  6.3  Since 1993, the Medical Research Council has developed a strategy for communications with all of its various publics. The steps taken include:

    —  expanding MRC's press team to facilitate media coverage of MRC science, and to support scientists and doctors in presenting their work. This work spans the range from explaining complex issues of risk and interpretation of scientific data (such as in relation to the evidence of links between the MMR vaccine and autism or irritable bowel disease), to engendering interest in major new clinical trials and population studies, to explaining scientific breakthroughs and milestones;

    —  launching a Schools Programme (1993)—to provide teachers and pupils with compelling material (both written and electronic) on medical science;

    —  organising and/or sponsoring numerous events to inform and interest the wider public in science, including presentations and practical demonstrations in major "general interest" exhibitions, shopping malls, and railway stations;

    —  organising events to maintain the awareness of GPs and other health professionals of genetics and other fast-moving areas in medical research;

    —  developing programmes of communications training for scientists, covering general communications skills, skills for schools work on particular issues (eg the use of animals in research), and media skills.

  6.4  However, in emphasising "public understanding of science" the White Paper overlooked the many other factors that contribute to the public's relationship with science and its applications. To create a relationship of trust, scientists and policy makers alike need to understand the public and their attitudes and worries, and to be seen to listen and learn. Over the last few years the Medical Research Council has been giving a higher priority to work that improves our understanding of the public's views, and to work that creates dialogue and engagement around real issues, which in turn helps people to understand the context in which scientific information is used.

  For example:

    —  we have formed a Consumer Liaison Panel to help us improve consumer input into MRC's business;

    —  as part of the planning for a large scale collection of donated DNA samples, we have been listening to the public's attitudes, questions and concerns in focus groups, and are now planning the next stage, a more focused consultation on the specifics of how the collection should be run. We have already completed a consultation—mainly with specialists and public interest groups—on the general ethical principles that should apply;

    —  in 1999, we commissioned MORI to undertake an in-depth study of public attitudes to the use of animals in research, encompassing their level of knowledge, trust in existing regulations, values, and reasoning, and published the results;

    —  we are organising a series of briefings for opinion formers on topic issues, such as stem cells, cloning, and animal experimentation.

  The recent report of the House of Lord's Science and Technology Committee, Science and Society (February 2000), provided a timely and welcome call for greater emphasis on dialogue, and a move a way from the 1993 models of "public understanding of science". We hope this thinking would be reflected in the proposed White Paper.

  6.5  Science and Society also held that although most UK scientists are now more committed to communication than in 1993, there is still a need to promote more and higher quality work by individuals and by universities. We agree that there is a need to continue improving skills, and encouraging commitment of resources, especially as dialogue is inevitably more time consuming and challenging than straightforward explanation of science. It is also important to emphasise the value of local activities based around a particular town, interest group, or network—as Realising Our Potential stated "Successful promotion of the public understanding of science and technology is most likely to be achieved by organisations and individual scientists and engineers passing on their knowledge and enthusiasms within their local communities". These links can be particularly valuable in that they avoid some of the artificiality of attempts to create dialogue and trust on a national scale. MRC is continuing to facilitate local links, and is well placed to do so by building on its Units and Institutes across the country. We are also looking at ways of encouraging universities to strengthen their communications work in these areas.

  6.6  The consultation paper on Science and Innovation Strategy emphasises the role of transparency in improving public confidence. In our experience it is essential for the scientific reasoning behind advice to the public, and for information about the individuals and processes involved in formulating the advice, to be made available.

  6.7  But we have to be aware that information may raise, rather than quell, anxieties, especially at first. When new information about, for example health and environmental risks, emerges, it is difficult to put in context, and there are always those who have an interest in sensationalising the "new revelations". The objective has to be to develop a tradition of more informed debate over many years, not to seek quick solutions.

  6.8  Also, while secrecy and bias are definitely news, openness and good decision-making are not. What the public are not aware of will have no impact on their confidence in science and innovation. For example, in the study they conducted for us, MORI found that there was very little awareness that the UK had a robust, centralised, regulatory system controlling the use of animals. With that starting point, important features of the system such as the involvement of animal welfarists in the Animal Procedures Committee, or the wealth of information and statistics available to those who know where to look, must have little impact. Experience also shows that exercises in public dialogue, such as citizen's juries or consensus conferences on topics like transgenic plants of xenotransplantation, are seldom mentioned when these issues are covered in the media. Transparency, therefore, has to be an active process. To build confidence, the processes governing science and scientific policy making have to be energetically publicised, explained and defended by Government and by scientific organisations.

  6.9  Finally, there also have to be some limits to openness. For example, in areas of high public interest close to policy-making, such as TSEs research, the clamour for immediate public disclosure of undigested scientific results needs to be kept in check.


  7.1  The UK has, on the whole, made good progress towards the goals set out in the White Paper for EU funding (6.8-6.11). The key themes in the Commission's Fifth Framework Programme reflect broad UK research strategies—for example, in the emphasis on post-genome approaches, and ageing research—and MRC played a key role, together with the Department of Health, in developing the biomedical aspects of the "Quality of Life.." programme in Framework V.

  7.2  MRC, and the other UK Research Councils, also have a crucial role to play in ensuring that Framework VI meets UK science needs in the European context. It will be important to continue the close consultation and co-operation—facilitated by OST—between government departments and Research Councils, that has characterised the UK negotiations for previous Framework Programmes.

Developing Countries

  7.3  The 1993 White Paper "Realising Our Potential" focused very much on international research collaboration as a means of improving UK economic output, but did not discuss the role of research in international development—both in delivering new solutions to health problems, informing policies, and developing countries own research capacity. MRC has a very effective concordat with DFID (formerly ODA), which includes the provision for the transfer of some funds from DFID to MRC to enable us to address shared strategic priorities in Developing Societies. Areas of common interest include:

    —  a major AIDS research programme in Uganda, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1999. This has had a major impact in controlling the epidemic in this country, whilst also providing unique insights into the clinical pathogenesis of AIDS following HIV infection. A new programme on AIDS vaccines in Kenya is also about to be launched.

    —  a "contraceptive development network", linking the MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit in Edinburgh with nodes in China, Hong Kong, S. Africa and Nigeria. This network for clinical studies is specifically designed to overcome the development gap between basic research and the pharmaceutical industry, in a very sensitive but critically important area.

    —  a substantial research programme in The Gambia, which celebrated its 50th anniversary recently. This programme is focused on important infectious disease such as malaria and TB, but is also now expanding into research on non-infectious diseases, such as diabetes. The burden of these diseases in developing societies is now increasing dramatically.

  7.4  What each of these strategic programmes have in common is that they exploit unique clinical research opportunities that do not exist in the UK, whilst addressing crucial global health issues, which are of particular importance to the host countries. To co-ordinate these activities and explore further opportunities for strategic overseas investment, a new MRC Advisory Committee on Overseas Research has recently been established. We have also set-up a panel to advise Council on the important ethical aspects of this research and MRC is an active participant and sponsor of the Global Forum on Bioethics in Research.


  7.5  Science is a global venture, and as discussed earlier the UK must actively look abroad for new talent and ideas if it is to maintain its excellence. Apart from MRC's specific initiative to promote recruitment from abroad, all MRC Units and Institutes have extensive international collaborations, and the international visibility of flagship institutes such s the Laboratory for Molecular Biology and National Institute for Medical Research allows them to act as a focus for collaborations and exchanges. With the exception of PhD studentships, all MRC training and career development awards are open to non-UK applicants and our grant support schemes allow for recruitment from overseas.

  7.6  While most scientists in the UK need little incentive to form collaborations with colleagues based in other countries, MRC has a strategic role in ensuring that mechanisms are in place to promote international collaboration, and in exploring opportunities that might further UK interests. We are responsible for the UK subscriptions to two major international funding agencies—HFSP and EMBC/EMBO/EMBL, both of which we are currently reviewing with regard to their value to UK science. We are also constantly considering whether strategic alliances can help strengthen UK science in particular priority areas. We have recently agreed with CNRS, France, to establish joint programmes in the UK, and have established a joint committee with France and Germany to consider use of DNA microarray technologies in Europe, an area where a concerted international approach offers scientific benefits and cost savings.

June 2000

17   Our comments concentrate on those trained as solely scientists. We assume that the challenge of developing a stronger cadres of clinician-researchers is outside the scope of this enquiry. Back

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