Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 731-739)




  731. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for coming today. At the start and for the record, could you introduce yourselves and give your affiliation. Then, if you have any opening comments to make, either collectively or individually, now is the time to do that.
  (Dr Goodwin) I would like to thank you very much for inviting us to give evidence today and may I start by apologising for the fact that our outgoing Director, Dr Michael Dexter, could not be here. I should explain that the Trust is in a period of transition at the moment. Dr Dexter is retiring next week and our new Director is not starting until June; hence my colleague, Val Snewin, and I were asked to represent the Trust. You are probably aware that the Wellcome Trust is an independent, medical research charity established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome and funded from a private endowment. The mission is to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health. As such, clearly the subject of this Committee "Fighting Infection" falls well within our remit. My role at the Trust is to head the Subject Panels Department. We have four subject panels, which deal with projects and programme grants. One of those panels deals specifically with infection and immunity. My colleague, Dr Val Snewin, is a Policy Officer at the Trust. She has had a previous career in research in tuberculosis and malaria.
  (Dr Dunstan) Perhaps I could start by saying how much George Radda regretted that he could not come today. I am the Director of Research Management for MRC, which means that I am responsible for the group that essentially is the interface between MRC Headquarters office and the scientific community. We facilitate the peer review proposals and the development of scientific strategy.
  (Dr Dukes) I am Peter Dukes, and I work within the Research Management Group at MRC. I have responsibility, amongst other things, for developing our relations with the new Health Protection Agency. Other work that I do is across our research boards at MRC to ensure joined-up thinking across the piece. Last year I was responsible, for example, for the review we did on autism and its link or not with infectious disease or vaccine.

  732. Do you have any opening comments?
  (Dr Dunstan) May I perhaps say that clearly MRC is a major public funder of research in infectious disease. I think we have told you that we spend something like £46 million a year at the moment on that work; £42 million of that reflects infectious disease, excluding prions. That is a very narrow definition. We spent some £60 million more each year on immunology of the immune system, which of course is closely related. A lot of our investment is in the developing world; some of it clearly is in relation to the developed world. We fund in various NHS situations as well as in research laboratories in the acute sector and primary care and public health. Perhaps I should end by saying that we are very clear that infectious disease is a particularly important area now with the new and emerging infections and the possibility of bio-terrorism. One of the things that we are looking at very carefully is developing a bid for SR 2004 on human infectious disease. We have a strategy group set up, which is meeting next week, with visitors from the CDC, NIAID in the States and a lot of experts from the UK, who will be helping us to plan that strategy.
  (Dr Goodwin) May I say that, although most of our funding is in the UK, we do have considerable investment in infectious diseases in the tropics. We have four tropical units and we spend about £20 million a year on research in developing countries.

  733. We move to the first question, which is straightforward, I suppose. How do you prioritise the different areas of research activity? As a supplement to that: is there any collaboration between your prioritorisation processes?
  (Dr Goodwin) The Trust mainly funds by response mode. The Governors think it very important to protect response mode baseline funding. Most of our funding is done by our general schemes: projects, programmes and fellowships. As I have already indicated, we do have a specific panel, the Infection and Immunity Panel, which handles the projects and programme grants. We do occasionally get approaches for major projects, which are assessed on a case-by-case basis by the Governors. One example of that is our funding of the Human Genome Project, and also the UK Biobank, which is in collaboration with the MRC and, as you are aware, we also contributed to the JIF and SRIF initiatives. Periodically we review specific fields by holding workshops, carrying out questionnaires and interviews. As a result of that process, we may decide to put focus funding into a particular area. One example of this, which arose ten years ago, was the setting up of a scheme for medical microbiology fellowships in order to try and build capacity in that area. Of course, that is of great relevance to this Committee. At the moment, we are specifically looking at and reviewing three other fields of relevance: antimicrobial resistance; patient-oriented research and evidence-based medicine; and diagnostics, particularly in developing countries. The Governors have not considered the recommendations of those reviews yet.
  (Dr Dunstan) Every year, MRC research boards look at their portfolio to ensure that they have as good a coverage of their topics as possible. They will draw to the attention of our Strategy Development Group any areas where they think there are gaps or where they think there is an opportunity and a need for MRC investment. We also have indications from the Department of Health about their priorities, which we take very seriously. One of those, for example, recently has been antibiotic resistance. We have had a highlight notice to encourage applications in that area. On the whole, apart from areas where we get direct funding from Government for specific topics, for example in the last spending review we had money for work on stem cells, we do not actually ring-fence money. The way we decide what to fund is a mixture of the quality of the proposal and its relevance to the MRC's work, portfolio and mission. I think there is some benefit from not drawing tight boundaries, in a sense, around areas because often one area contributes to another. For example, we put out a call for proposals in primary care. Quite a few of those that came in were relevant to the infections research. There is a lot of cross-talk between different areas within the MRC portfolio.

  734. On the whole, would you tend to consider, and fund indeed, research that is more basic rather than clinical? There have been a number of occasions when the clinical side has been obvious but it is very difficult for workers in that area to get funding from, say, MRC or Wellcome Trust.
  (Dr Dunstan) We try to strike a balance between the basic content of our portfolio, the clinical and translational. Sometimes that is difficult, particularly in terms of the quality of the proposals that come in. I think, if I may say so, sometimes the clinical people on the boards are pretty hard on clinical applications. It is very much more difficult, I think, to put forward a really good clinical application than it is for one that is done in a basic laboratory. There is a lot of iteration now. We do try, if we have comments, to pass them back to the applicants and say, "Can you come back to us", if we think the application is going to be fundable in the end, "taking this into account?"

Lord Oxburgh

  735. Apart from industry there are three main funders of medical research in the country, two of which are represented here today and the third is the NHS. There have been some notable occasions when you three have actually got together to push a big project, and Biobank is one at the moment that comes immediately to mind. Do those three bodies get together formally or informally on a regular but perhaps infrequent basis for a general look at the biomedical research scene and to take away ideas?
  (Dr Dunstan) As you know, MRC has a concordat with the Health Departments and so, if you like, messages pass pretty clearly between MRC and the Departments of Health in both directions. We take close account of their needs and priorities. We meet with them regularly both at chief executive level and our Chief Executive meets with Sir John Pattison who leads the NHS R&D, and we meet with the policy people, too, in the Department of Health. We have regular meetings with the Wellcome Trust. Senior officials, including the Chief Executive, meet, I would say, three or four times a year at planned meetings. Generally, we take topics that are timely and of interest to us both. Perhaps finally, I could say that there are times, for example with Biobank but also in other areas—and I think we are planning at the moment to do something together looking at malaria—when we jointly look at an area and see what is needed, and then we both take away the messages and deal with them, together or separately.
  (Dr Goodwin) I do not have much to add to that except that obviously we do not have quite such strong links with the Department of Health as the MRC does but, nevertheless, we are in contact with them and there are meetings between our Director and John Pattison.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

  736. You have already mentioned that there may be some variation in the quality of proposals coming to you. We are wondering whether there are sufficient high quality research grant applications coming in the subject area of infectious diseases and what proportion of infectious disease applications are successful compared to those in other areas? It would be helpful to know whether you have that divided perhaps between the basic and the translational type of research as well. You may not have that available.
  (Dr Dunstan) I am sorry but I do not have the figures yet, but we will send them to you. They are quite difficult for us to extract from our system. The MRC is very happy with the quality of proposals that come to us in some parts of the infectious disease area. For example, both in the clinical and in basic work on HIV and AIDS there are very high quality applications. We tend to get very good proposals for future work from some of our units: the Virology Unit in Glasgow, the flu work that goes on at the National Institute of Medical research at Mill Hill, and others. There are areas of our portfolio where we are very happy with the quality. There are other areas, for example in public health, in primary care and in areas, that are to do with risk and behaviour, where we would like to see an increase in quality, I think. We are working with people who are in the field to try to achieve that.
  (Dr Goodwin) I can give you information about the Infection and Immunity Panel. The award rate there is about 30 per cent and that is very similar to all the other funding panels in neuroscience, molecular cell biology, physiology and pharmacology. There is really no difference in the award rates, but these are mainly basic research proposals. We get relatively few applications at the translational or clinical end and those that do come, tend not to fare very well. Perhaps I can tell you about the Medical Microbiology Fellowship Initiative that I mentioned earlier, which was designed to try and build capacity, particularly in academic medical microbiology. That scheme has run for ten years. We are currently reviewing it. I think it is quite significant that in some years we have not actually had enough high quality applications to be able to use all the funds that we put aside for that scheme. I think there is clearly a problem in that area. Our Medical Microbiology Fellowship Scheme was specifically for academic medical microbiology and trying to build capacity in that area. You may be aware that the Academy of Medical Sciences did a review on this and published a report on careers in academic clinical bacteriology and identified a lot of problems in that area.

  737. Has that also been the experience within the MRC?
  (Dr Dunstan) Yes, they did. In fact, we have 36 awards for clinical training fellows—those are the clinical people who are working towards a PhD—out of 274 awards in total across the MRC's portfolio, and so that is about right. If you look at our spend of about £40 million to £45 million out of about £420 million, it is about consonant with how much we spend on the area. In senior clinical awards, there are seven clinician scientist fellowships and senior clinical fellowships together, and that is out of 83 overall. Again, it is about 10 per cent. We are getting a reasonable number of good applications. However, it does not mean that we would not like more and that the area could not be built up further. I think that is something we would agree. We have some joint fellowships with the Royal College of Pathologists that we share in the area of infection.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

  738. We are told by Wellcome that they have a success rate of applications of, I think you said, 30 per cent.
  (Dr Goodwin) That was for the project and programme grants.

  739. What is the equivalent for the MRC?
  (Dr Dunstan) I am sorry, that is the figure I do not have but we will send it to you.

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