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


Memorandum submitted by the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC)

  The Association of Medical Research Charities represents 110 registered charities which have as a principal activity the support of medical research in the UK. In 1999-2000 these charities funded more than £500 million in UK based research activity in addition to providing funds for buildings and other capital and infrastructure projects. Of this total, 50 per cent is accounted for by the Wellcome Trust. A list of member charities is attached as an annex.

  The university sector is the principal beneficiary of charity funding for medical research and accounts for over 70 per cent of the funding. This reflects the fact that universities undertake a very wide range of research relevant to medicine and are able to attract funding for almost every field of research.

  The charity sector in medical research is characterised by the fact that half the funding is for disease specific research. Prominent in the charity sector is the field of cancer research but the largest area is general medical research, principally funding from the Wellcome Trust. Charities fund a range of research relevant to their disease or objects, some of which will be basis or "blue skies", some strategic and some applied.

  The charity sector, at least in part, reflects the public's priorities in medical research and provides a stream of funding which is significantly different from the statutory and commercial sectors. It is the principal or major source of funding for research in a wide range of areas, including cancer, ophthalmology, cystic fibrosis, diabetes psychiatry and heart disease. It is important therefore that the contribution of the charity sector is viewed alongside other sources of funding for UK research though it is equally important that the different roles are mutually understood and that complementarity is encouraged by Government policies.

  Charities support research through a very wide range of funding schemes. There are broadly three types of support: responsive funding (where the charity agrees to support a research institute of an individual to undertaken the research that they have themselves identified that they wish to undertake); partnership support for research infrastructure or longer term programmes of research (such as unit funding, buildings, endowed chairs) in HEIs or the NHS where funding is provided for major initiatives which meet the objectives of both the charity and the host institution; and research supported in charities' independent institutes (eg ICRF). It is very unusual for AMRC charities to directly commission medical research.

  Members of AMRC believe that peer review is essential in order to ensure the quality of the work being funded and to maintain distance between those who disburse funds and those who receive them. It is a condition of membership of AMRC that a strict and accountable process of peer review is used for all awards and the operation of this process is regularly monitored by the AMRC.

  In responding to the call for evidence, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) has focused on only the issues it considers relevant to its field of medical research and there are some aspects of the Inquiry on which it would not wish to comment.


  The annual publication of Forward Look has not made an obvious impact and AMRC remains unclear as to its intended audience and users.

  AMRC considers that although the report offers an overview of the Government supported research base it does not adequately reflect the picture as a whole. Poor quality and lack of consistency in data included in the Forward Look on non-government funding gives a misleading picture of the overall research base, especially in medicine and health.

  AMRC believes that this serves to minimise the impact of non-government funders, particularly the non-profit sector, and therefore provides a weak basis for policy making. Government could facilitate better decision-making by commissioning an annual Forward Look that took a wider view of the research base.


  On balance AMRC believes Technology Foresight has helped in focusing Government departments and the scientific community on future directions for research and transfer to practical outcome.

  Although the White Paper emphasised the importance of quality of life as well as wealth creation, AMRC feels that often Government has lost sight of the wider public benefit accruing from research and has a tendency to focus only on issues of wealth creation.

  A preoccupation with technology transfer is an example of this: in medical research especially, much of the output is not commercially exploitable but nevertheless requires mechanisms to be in place if maximum potential is to be gained from it.

  Government should also consider why venture capital for start-up companies is relatively poor in the UK compared with the USA. Part of this is a greater risk aversion in the UK and the difference in taxation between the two countries.


  The change from Advisory Council on Science and Technology to Council on Science and Technology was presumably to ensure that Government played a more direct role in directing research strategy.

  It remains an important function of Government to have a good overall picture of the research base, emerging priorities and issues of concern. AMRC believes it is especially important that there is a body responsible for maintaining a UK-wide perspective.

  However, AMRC has concerns about the way in which members of committees and advisory groups are selected and appointed and considers that the involvement of authoritative stakeholder groups in making recommendations for membership may enable DTI/OST to include a better balance of perspectives.

  AMRC considers that broader and ongoing networks of contact with stakeholders should be developed by OST rather than the current mechanisms, which depend on a limited range of broad subject committees.


  Since the introduction of the 1993 White Paper Realising our potential there has undoubtedly been a greater emphasis on technology transfer within the science base which may, at least in part, be due to the recommendations of the White Paper. A number of changes were already occurring in higher education and it is not clear that these or the gathering momentum were due to the White Paper.

  Charities recognise that over the last eight years higher education technology transfer has improved and there are some notable pockets of expertise and success. However, some difficulties remain: in many universities the facility for technology transfer remains problematic and is not recognised as a high enough priority or is perceived as against the culture of the sector. There are also differences of view with regard to the community of users that university technology transfer exists to serve.

  There is a shortage of university expertise mirrored in a lack of clarity about what support systems are available through Government and little awareness of best practice elsewhere. AMRC supports strongly the principle that inventors should benefit from their work but wonders whether the current mechanisms in HEIs focus too strongly on short term gains. There is much further work to be done in higher education and government in considering how these issues can be overcome.

  The 1993 White Paper did not foresee the range of issues that have arisen from the globalisation of research and variations in patenting law. For example, the significant differences in UK and US patent law are important and confusion can act against innovation and successful technology transfer. One issue for future consideration by Government is the question of a "grace period" for patenting.


  It has been useful for there to be a single point of contact for all the research councils and the appointment of the director general of the research councils built upon this.

  Clearly the Government has a responsibility to manage the research councils but AMRC would stress that it believes the focus of Government strategy should be on enabling and facilitation.


  AMRC considers the creation of a Minister for Science and Technology and the Office of Science and Technology has been very positive. They have provided a focus and voice for science within Government and wider recognition of the important role Government has in creating the right environment for science to thrive in the UK.


  AMRC considers it is primarily Government's role to support a science base that enables scientists to engage effectively and innovatively in research and not to direct that research effort in its totality.

  While AMRC would encourage the Government to identify strategic initiatives or needs that require central leadership, AMRC believes it is probably undesirable for Government to become increasingly involved in directing the research itself.

  Government should focus on mechanisms, which will enable research to be undertaken, and the fruits of research to be transcribed into practical outcomes.

  Increased Governmental involvement in the way funding for research is used has had a perverse influence in that Government takes on an increased accountability for the research which is undertaken.


  Confusion about intellectual property law is one of the possible disincentives that might drive research overseas.

  The pharmaceutical industry in the UK does itself undertake much first class research and AMRC considers it is important that OST works to ensure that the research environment continues to encourage this investment and to be aware that regulations introduced by other Government departments may create disincentives for research investment. In medical research, issues that concern both the charities and industry include difficulties in organising large scale clinical trials and animal licence procedures.


  The AMRC considers that despite Government efforts it is clear that it has not achieved its aspirations to improve the public understanding or confidence in science contained in the White Paper.

  The public understanding of science has not been helped by adverse media comment on the high profile cases of cloning and GM foods.

  Government should develop a better understanding of its own role and credibility in developing public confidence in science. The recent House of Lords report on Science and Society makes many valuable recommendations for Government and others and AMRC hopes that the Government will give them serious consideration.

  It is of course important that Government consults experts when drawing up its pronouncements but this must be done in the context of the reality of scientific knowledge.

  The AMRC considers that there are some non-governmental organisations which are more trusted by the public for their contribution towards science-based decision making and that Government should develop mechanisms for working with such bodies rather than seek to direct public understanding of science initiatives itself. AMRC suggests that consideration is given as to how OST might facilitate a wider range of PUS activities through partnerships and funding schemes.

  AMRC and the medical research charity sector can play a very particular role in helping build public trust and confidence in science because of their direct public support and their focus on the positive use of science for the alleviation of suffering and improvement in health. They are seen as independent of Government (politics) and industry (profit) and do not speak on behalf of the scientists themselves. This unique position is one that the Government could note.

  Government funding of polls in public awareness and understanding of science has been very helpful and further work along these lines should be encouraged.

  AMRC would wish to suggest that civil servants from DTI/OST might be seconded for a period of time to AMRC or member charities in order to improve understanding of differing roles and perspectives and to foster greater collaboration on common concerns.

July 2000

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