Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)

8 DECEMBER 2003

PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE

  Q40 Chairman: Will the MRC be addressing those problems?

  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 Progress—an 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 you—or 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 mechanisms—and, from what I know of them so far, I think they usually work quite well—for 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 more resource.

  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 MRC—and, actually, occasionally get them funded—and 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 of funds?

  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 is appropriate.

  Dr Turner: I would have sympathy, professor, for that.

  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 prepared—okay, 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 down—to 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 success—but I can work on that.

  Q49 Mr McWalter: That is a different answer from the one I have had before.

  Professor Blakemore: I am interested—and, indeed, would hope to talk to members of the Committee privately about this—about 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 work?

  Professor Blakemore: You say "if". The review of the Cooperative Group Grant scheme—which by the way the MRC put in place shortly after the scheme was introduced—has 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 unpopular—and that is reflected in my impressions from the roadshow events—largely 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 bad—organised, simply to get access or attempt to get access to additional funds. We are actively considering—and I have to say this with some caution because of course everything is subject to the approval of Council—ways 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 to collaborate.

  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 perspective—which in some ways is the one that concerns me most, that has he highest priority in my plans for MRC—RCUK 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 activities.

  Q54 Dr Harris: In terms of Mill Hill—which is a subject, I know, close to your heart and something you were keen to take on when you arrived—there 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 criticism—and you may not have heard this, so I just ask openly—that 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. Secondly—this is another rumour that had been heard some months ago from people at Mill Hill, who were grateful to hear about the stay of execution—that 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 committee—this 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[1] experts from outside this country, four[2] of whom, I believe—and I will check on the figures—were suggested by NIMR itself—we 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 size—one of the spectrum of possibilities—through 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 four. Back

2   Note by the Witness: The actual number is three. Back


 
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