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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Medical Research Council


  1.  The Medical Research Council welcomed the science White Paper, and in particular the emphasis on delivering scientific "brain gain", whether through helping to attract the best scientists from abroad to work in the UK, or through encouraging a higher proportion of the best graduates to enter scientific research training, and ensuring the quality of that training.

  2.  At the time the new White Paper was published, MRC already had in place a fast-track research funding scheme to make it easier for universities and MRC units to bring researchers from other countries to the UK. Three senior university appointments in medial research have already been helped by use of the MRC scheme, with up to a dozen more expected in the near future. We expect that universities will use the MRC scheme to complement the new funding for outstanding researchers announced in the White Paper.

  3.  MRC welcomed the provision of extra funding for postgraduate research stipends, which will bring the basic rate up to £9,000 in three years. At present, MRC pays considerably more (£7,450 outside London and £9,900 in London) than the basic research council rate, as we have long felt that, in a competitive and fast moving area with a strong industrial R&D sector, the basic rates were insufficient to attract high-calibre graduates. A recent consultation with UK universities suggests that even the new rates will not be seen as an attractive level of support in the biomedical sector, and MRC will continue to pay research students substantially more than the basic rate, and will decide on the new level of MRC stipends next month.

  4.  MRC considers that it is also timely to begin exploring alternatives to the established models of PhD (or MRes + PhD) support, and have recently launched a new pilot scheme for salaried pre-doctoral fellowships in MRC establishments. The first awards will be taken up in Autumn 2001, and graduates will be employed as salaried members of staff, with full contracts of employment and employment benefits, on fixed term contracts. The pilot will be carefully evaluated. We will be considering not only the effectiveness of awards in attracting highly talented individuals who might not otherwise have chosen a research career, but also the potential to improve perceptions of careers in scientific research by putting graduate research appointments on a par with other graduate career options.


  5.  Our initial memorandum underlined how partnerships between research funders had become a pervasive feature of strategic planning since the 1993 White Paper.

  As further examples, the past year has seen:

    —  the establishment of the Cancer Research Funders Forum, involving the Department of Health, MRC and the main charities. The Forum has already commissioned a review (By MRC) of prostate cancer research in the UK, and steps are already being taken to strengthen this underdeveloped area of research. The Forum has also helped pave the way for the new National Cancer Research Institute, which will play a similar co-ordinating role.

    —  the formation of a similar Funders Forum for Ageing Research which not only brings together the Department of Health and charities, but also BBSRC, ESRC and EPSRC, reflecting the contribution of research in the social science, in non-medical life sciences, and in engineering and IT, to the aim of extending quality of life.

    —  the allocation of funds in the Science Budget to three priority themes—genomics, e-science and basic technology—in which realising the UK's potential depends on ensuring there are well funded, effectively managed strategies co-ordinated across several, or all, research councils.

  6.  At an international level, MRC is also involved in an ambitious initiative planned by the EC, to address the three major diseases of poverty—AIDS, TB and malaria. The principal aim will be to bring new therapies quickly and efficiently through from basic research to clinical application, in large part through new public-private partnerships. MRC is liaising closely with the Commission on the preliminary planning, and given our research expertise in these areas, we anticipate playing a major role in the initiative.


  7.  A copy of MRCS's press release responding to the Science Budget announcement is attached[30], and fuller plans for how MRC will use its funding and its links with other funders, to take forward priority areas and training will be published in March.

  8.  MRC welcomed the provision of a further £1 billion for capital infrastructure in UK universities and research council institutes. The Committee will be aware that further details of how the new capital funding for universities will be administered have been published since they heard evidence in October. These arrangements will, we believe, significantly reduce the administrative costs which universities and research councils had to occur in the JIF scheme. As responsibility for strategic direction is devolved to individual universities, the approach depends on a strong commitment to co-ordination among universities, and between universities and funders, to ensure the provision of space and equipment reflects realistic assumptions about future funding for research staff and programmes, and to avoid competition between universities leading to over-provision. MRC, along with other Research Councils is encouraging universities to consult informally on their plans at an early stage.

January 2001

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