Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)|
8 DECEMBER 2003
Q40 Chairman: Will the MRC be addressing
Professor Blakemore: Yes to both
of them. We have already talked about animal experimentation.
It is an area where the MRC has been very active and will increasingly
be so. I would remind the Committee about the Coalition for Medical
Progressan increasingly influential organisation which
was initiated by the Medical Research Council. But, in the area
of clinical research, the MRC is centrally involved in very exciting
and promising discussions about a radical reorganisation. In the
context of two recent reports, one by the Academy of Medical Sciences
and the other by the Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team
for the DTI, the Department of Health has set up a working party
chaired by Sir John Paterson which is trying to tackle the whole
question of how to strengthen and move clinical research ahead
in this country. The MRC, I am delighted to say, is centrally
involved in those discussions and I think and hope will be centrally
involved in how they are implemented.
Q41 Dr Turner: There is an obvious scope
for overlap at the basic end of your search with that covered
by the broader remit of the BBSRC. In fact, they claim to be getting
grant applications which would previously have gone to youor
perhaps they just come to them with your thumbprints on them.
Are you satisfied with the clarity of boundaries between the kind
of work that you will fund and the kind of work which you would
expect the BBSRC to fund?
Professor Blakemore: Each of the
research councils has a statement of its specific areas of interests.
One of the reasons for that is to define for applicants to which
council they should send their applications for support. But,
you know, science is not actually sharply divided and ring-fenced
into particular territories, so it is not surprising to find that
there are applications that hang around the boundaries of interest
of BBSRC and MRC. Indeed, one can argue that some of the most
interesting developments in science occur at the boundaries of
responsibility of the different research councils. So I do not
find it surprising that applications sometimes turn up at MRC
that might be better handled by BBSRC and vice-versa. What you
said, though, implied a different problem and one that I acknowledge;
that is, that academics are canny people. They have seen the problems
that the MRC have been going through in the last couple of years
and they have slightly re-engineered their research interests,
or at least their applications, to make them appeal more to BBSRC.
Well, you know, staff in grant funding agencies are also canny
and they can sometimes spot when that is just a veneer and that
really the work belongs more appropriately in a different council.
We do have mechanismsand, from what I know of them so far,
I think they usually work quite wellfor defining to which
council an application should be directed and for trying to expedite
the transition of the application as quickly as reasonably is
possible to the other funding agency.
Q42 Chairman: May I ask a specific question:
EMBO, for example, do MRC and BBSRC both fund EMBO?
Professor Blakemore: Only MRC,
I believe. I will let you know in writing if I am wrong, but I
believe it is MRC alone.
Q43 Chairman: There is a problem there
with funding, is there?
Professor Blakemore: Yes, we have
just been asked for a significant increase in our subscription
to EMBO to fund their fellowship scheme. If you are asking my
opinion of that, it is not yet fully formed. EMBO is a wonderful
organisation, very well run. This country benefits from it considerably.
It is a model, actually, for the organisation of science at a
European level. However, the reason that we are being asked for
more money is so that EMBO can sustain its award rate for fellowships
when the accession countries join the European Union, but the
predicted award rate even if new money does not arrive is still
higher than the MRC's present award rate for its own domestic
fellowships. It is a real dilemma for the MRC: Do we agree to
give money to a good organisation so as to maintain a higher award
rate than we ourselves are able to sustain?
Q44 Chairman: This is another case for
Professor Blakemore: But of course.
Q45 Dr Turner: Do you think there is
any case for merging the BBSRC and MRC, since you do have so much
work in common?
Professor Blakemore: I think there
are two sides to that question, both of which lead to the same
conclusion, and the answer is no. One is one of administrative
size: they are both big organisations, they are both complex organisations,
they both have complicated responsibilities outside the mainstream
of their funding. Both BBSRC and MRC are so large that they need
their own administrative structure. The other is that the MRC's
responsibilities vis-a"-vis clinical research and
health and illness are really quite distinctly different from
those of BBSRC. Yes, there is borderline territory where we have
common interest. One indication of this is the fact that people
in BBSRC research institutes occasionally send grant applications
to the MRCand, actually, occasionally get them fundedand
we are discussing with Julia Goodfellow the possibility that workers
in MRC research institutes might be able to apply to BBSRC. That
implies that there is a borderline which is fuzzy. But the MRC's
responsibility for clinical research, for translation from basic
science into applications that are relevant to the treatment and
prevention of disease, I think defines very sharply the distinctive
territory of the MRC.
Q46 Dr Turner: Are you happy with the
current success rate of applications to the MRC of about 25%?
Do you think this is high enough? Does this reflect the shortage
Professor Blakemore: The short
answer is no. But I am not dissatisfied simply because the percentage
is not high enough; I am dissatisfied because we are not able
even to fund all the applications that we rate as being internationally
world class and internationally competitive. The percentage of
applications that we can fund depends, obviously, on the number
of grants we are able to award and the number of applications
that are submitted. There are factors that determine that ratio
different from the absolute standard of the grants that are funded.
At the moment, you will be glad to know, the MRC is funding a
higher percentage of its alpha-A applications than a year ago
but it is still not 100%. I will remain deeply dissatisfied as
long as the MRC is not able to fund all of the world class applications
that it receives. That is a very sad commentary. It would mean
that we are effectively exercising market forces on a resource
that has been built up through 20 or 30 years of investment simply
by not providing the funds that are needed to sustain it.
Q47 Dr Turner: Would that form part of
your submission to the Government at the next spending review?
Do you have any handle on the sort of increase in MRC funding
that will be needed especially taking into account the increasing
cost of biological research? It is running far ahead of inflation.
Are you prepared to give a ball park figure?
Professor Blakemore: If you want
a ball park figure, certainly, yes. To be able to fund all the
international level research applications that we receive and
the best of the nationally competitive applications, and to play
our part in the new effort to strengthen clinical research, we
would need at least to double our budget. Given the fact that
it would still take us only to a quarter of the level of funding
per head of the population of the United States, I do not think
that is an unreasonable expectation. I would ask the Government
whether it believes it is right that it should be funding medical
research at one-eighth of the level that the US Government thinks
Dr Turner: I would have sympathy, professor,
Q48 Mr McWalter: If I may ask a question
I have asked other research councils. The spirit of openness that
you have been showing today, not just in what you have said but
in the way that you have said it, I heartily commend. But one
of the issues is how you prosecute that argument about the costs
of not funding these issues. I specifically would like to ask
whether you would be preparedokay, with the consent and
support and so on of failed applicants of the kind at international
level and the best national research enterprises that you are
having to turn downto publicise those projects, so that
people can see what they are missing if they do not get an appropriate
level of funding. Would you be prepared, in the interests of openness,
to do that?
Professor Blakemore: That is a
radical idea and I am ashamed at myself for not thinking of it.
I think that is splendid. Of course it would require the compliance
of unsuccessful applicants to disclose their lack of successbut
I can work on that.
Q49 Mr McWalter: That is a different
answer from the one I have had before.
Professor Blakemore: I am interestedand,
indeed, would hope to talk to members of the Committee privately
about thisabout the appropriate way to take forward this
argument if, as I sense, the Committee agrees with the thrust
of what I am saying, that science, particularly perhaps medical
science, simply deserves more of the public purse. I need your
advice. You are the parliamentarians, I am the scientist; I need
your advice about how to pursue the argument.
Q50 Mr McWalter: It is silly to deprive
ourselves of a good argument.
Professor Blakemore: Yes. I often
think that scientists are too reticent in pursuing their own arguments.
Q51 Dr Turner: There has been quite a
lot of criticism of Cooperative Group Grants. If you were to scrap
them, what other mechanism would you put in place to foster collaborative
Professor Blakemore: You say "if".
The review of the Cooperative Group Grant schemewhich by
the way the MRC put in place shortly after the scheme was introducedhas
just reported. I am sure you will all be eager to read the 262
pages of the pdf download file which is on the MRC website now,
but if you want the executive summary I can give it to you. It
is that the Cooperative Group Grant scheme is generally unpopularand
that is reflected in my impressions from the roadshow eventslargely
because it has, as it were, protected the project grant scheme
from the academic community. That led, to some extent anyway,
particularly among the later applications that were received,
to what appeared to be synthesised collaborations"marriages
of convenience" was I think the phrase that you used, and
I do not think that is badorganised, simply to get access
or attempt to get access to additional funds. We are actively
consideringand I have to say this with some caution because
of course everything is subject to the approval of Councilways
of moving on from the Cooperative Group Grant scheme while supporting
the principle of supporting collaboration, of course, but in a
much simplified form. If I could be specific, we are thinking
of introducing a very flexible form of grant scheme which essentially
will allow people to apply for small grants as well as large grants,
and to allow them to couple to their basic research grant (if
they can make the argument separately for it) a supplementary
grant to cover the cost of cooperation and collaboration. And
that cooperation and collaboration could be with any other grant
holder; there does not have to be the complicated requirement
for two MRC grants and 18 months still to run and so on that the
Coop scheme had. It is just a simple scheme giving people money
Q52 Chairman: As for moving to work with
other research councils, there is no attempt to move to Swindon,
I guess, from your palatial headquarters in Park House.
Professor Blakemore: I go to Swindon,
and in some respects it appears a lot more palatial than Park
Crescent. If you are asking me to defend the presence of MRC at
Park Crescent, I would certainly do that robustly.
Q53 Chairman: I was interested if there
were any plans to mix with the staff in other research councils
more directly over tea and coffee.
Professor Blakemore: Chairman,
we do that already. We have this new organisation, RCUK, which
I think in many respects is working well to define new ways in
which the research councils can work together more effectively.
From a scientific perspectivewhich in some ways is the
one that concerns me most, that has he highest priority in my
plans for MRCRCUK offers wonderful opportunities to identify
areas of growth across the boundaries of research councils and
to make those the basis of proposals for the comprehensive spending
reviews. One of the proposals we are pursuing at the moment, for
instance, is one with the ESRC, a project called Changing Ourselves
which is about lifestyle and health, a very important area of
social concern at the moment with the interest in obesity and
so on. Another proposal is for a collaboration with BBSRC on infectious
diseases. We are even talking to the Arts and Humanities Research
Board about areas where we might put forward proposals for joint-funding
Q54 Dr Harris: In terms of Mill Hillwhich
is a subject, I know, close to your heart and something you were
keen to take on when you arrivedthere has been or there
is an ongoing review. Could you say a word about when that is
due and how that is going?
Professor Blakemore: Yes. You
are referring to the Task Force, the new process that was established
after the Council set aside the recommendation of the Forward
Investment Strategy sub-committee that NIMR should be downsized
and moved to Cambridge.
Q55 Dr Harris: Downsized?
Professor Blakemore: The proposal
was that it should be reduced in size and moved to Cambridge,
but that was set aside. The Task Force is more fully representative.
It includes representatives from Mill Hill and has mechanisms
for engaging a consultative process with Mill Hill staff. It has
a wide range of expert members, several of them proposed by NIMR
itself, and it is conducting its work very openly and transparently.
We have had only one meeting of that group so far, but we have
a very tight timetable to deliver, and we want to produce a preliminary
report by the early spring of next year and we have set a deadline
of July for a final report with recommendations to the Council.
Q56 Dr Harris: Do you think it would
be a fair criticismand you may not have heard this, so
I just ask openlythat the task-force membership is not
sufficiently representative of those from Mill Hill compared to
those people from other sites who might benefit from a transfer.
Secondlythis is another rumour that had been heard some
months ago from people at Mill Hill, who were grateful to hear
about the stay of executionthat the task force is not considering
all the options. Is it really an open mind exercise, so there
is nothing which has been ruled out?
Professor Blakemore: I can assure
you that my mind is completely open. Of course I cannot speak
for the minds of everyone on the committeethis is a philosophical
problem of other minds.
Q57 Dr Harris: That should become clear
from the terms of reference.
Professor Blakemore: Yes.
Q58 Dr Harris: Perhaps you could reassure
me about the terms of reference.
Professor Blakemore: Let me describe
the constitution of the task force. Apart from myself it consists
of two representatives from NIMR; two representatives from the
Council who were not members of the original FIS sub-committee;
a vice-chancellor of a medical school; five or six
experts from outside this country, four
of whom, I believeand I will check on the figureswere
suggested by NIMR itselfwe gave them the opportunity to
suggest names. That sounds reasonably balanced to me. As for the
openness of the remit, it is totally open. What we have on the
table is a range of options extending, and we have all agreed
on this, from keeping NIMR at the Mill Hill site with new investment
and an increase in sizeone of the spectrum of possibilitiesthrough
to complete closure of Mill Hill and the deployment of the resources
elsewhere, and we are trying to identify where within that thought
space the optimum solution lies.
Q59 Dr Harris: I am keen not to pre-judge
the issue so I want to reflect a little on the past. Do you think
the reaction, which was very hostile from both the people there
and the people who were presumably lobbied and knew the Institute,
was simply because it was felt by those people to be a bad idea,
or from what you can tell looking back do you think the process
was flawed? In other words, is it inevitable that whenever a change
is made there would be this sort of hostility to it or were there
special factors here about the process which could be avoided
in the future by you and indeed other research councils?
Professor Blakemore: I am sure
the strength of the reaction was predicated on both of those things:
on the nature of the recommendations that were made, which were
a shock to people at Mill Hill, but also on the way it was done,
apparently without adequate consultation, which was their perception.
1 Note by the Witness: The actual number is
Note by the Witness: The actual number is three. Back