Memorandum submitted by the Medical Research
1.1 The Medical Research Council welcomes
this opportunity to contribute to the Science and Technology Committee's
deliberations on Realising Our Potential and the proposed
Science and Innovation White Paper. A great deal of progress has
been made since 1993 in addressing the concerns that prevailed
the UK has, in OST, a proper mechanism
for handling science policy and funding issues across government;
there is greater clarity about the
strategic roles of the Research Councils;
funding for the biomedical science
base is now oriented towards more stable, multidisciplinary structures
with greater critical mass;
there are more opportunities for
young biomedical researchers to obtain longer term positions,
through personal awards and grants;
new partnerships between the science
base and users, and between funders have formed, providing greater
returns on investment;
pathways for commercial exploitation
of publicly funded science have been greatly enhanced;
science has, for better and sometimes
for worse, achieved a higher profile in people's minds, and most
scientists now give a higher priority to explaining their work
to non-scientific audiences, and are more skilled at communications.
Some of the changes made by MRC since 1993 are
discussed in more detail below. The bulk of this submission, however,
considers the facts, viewpoints, and concerns that need to be
taken into account in developing UK science policy for the future.
In some areas, such as the attractiveness of scientific careers,
there is still a great deal more to do to ensure the UK can maintain
and exploit its international pre-eminence in science, and in
other areas, such as public understanding of science, it is time
to acknowledge the limitations of the approaches emphasised in
Realising Our Potential.
1.2 Our comments below are in six sections:
(2) Research Council's governance, leadership
(3) Scientists' training and careers.
(4) Ways of supporting the science base.
(5) Exploitation and Application.
(6) The public's relationship with science.
(7) International science.
1.3 Given the range of issues covered by
the enquiry, it is only possible to offer a summary of MRC's viewpoint
here. We would be happy to elaborate on any of the topics, orally
or in writing, or to provide supporting data.
2. OST, RESEARCH
The Office of Science and Technology
2.1 With hindsight, the formation of an Office
of Science and Technology to replace ABRC was justified. OST has
provided a focal point for discussion of science issues within
government, and has helped deliver clearer and more decisive proposals
in spending reviews. It has a role that is essential to a country
seeking a knowledge based economy and modern, effective public
2.2 The presence of OST has also helped
to facilitate joint initiatives across Research Council boundaries.
Co-operation to rationalise London Offices, develop common systems
of grants payment administration, share internal audit function,
and co-operating in procurement, have all helped improve Council''
administrative efficiency. Especially since the 1997 Comprehensive
Spending Review, OST has also developed strategies to encourage
and aid scientific co-operation (see below).
2.3 The disadvantages of having a more centralised
science administration are that lines of communication between
science and Government are longer and more complex, and that the
relative roles of the various parts of OST (and relevant parts
of DTI) and the Research Councils are sometimes obscure. The presence
of OST has meant that Research Councils are less likely to be
consulted in policy debates, even when the issue depends on consideration
of specifics that vary between research sectors, rather than general
policies and trends. There is also an increased tendency for other
organisations to see Research Councils as simply a section of
Government, rather than as bodies that can assemble and distil
distinct and independent advice from a broad cross-section of
stakeholders, which is not easily accessible to a central office.
These problems may be felt more acutely by MRC than by other Research
Councils, partly because stability over the last few decades has
allowed us to develop a very strong role in representing and leading
the medical research sector, and partly because medical research
strategy has to address the rapidly growing charity sector, and
national health needs and health service structures, as well as
more general policy issues.
The mission and role of Research Councils
2.4 The White Paper's principles for public
sector research funding, and the organisation of Research Councils,
have proved sound. At the same time as highlighting the importance
of user relevance and strategic decision-making, the Paper restated
the Haldane principle that detailed decisions on scientific strategy
and research funding should be taken by Research Councils rather
than by government. It also re-affirmed the need for scientific
excellence as the prerequisite for public sector funding"second
rate research is a poor buy"and that the main role
of public funding should be in supporting basic and strategic
research. These principles have continued to be applied in practice,
and have served the UK well. They should remain central to UK
2.5 At the time of the White Paper, during
the 1994-95 Technology Foresight exercise, and when OST moved
from the Cabinet office to OST, many people in the science-based
industry expressed fears that research funding would be more centrally
directed, and oriented to short-term industry needs for applied
research, rather than longer term goals of innovativeness and
social benefit. These fears were not realised, but consumed a
considerable amount of time and energy that could have been avoided
by more considered and consistent explanation of policy at the
2.6 The White Paper defined six mission-oriented
Research Councils, in order to allow vertical integration between
basic and strategic or applied research in each sector, and to
ensure policies were tailored flexibly to the needs of each sector
and it stakeholders. Trends since 1997, and in particular the
pace of progress in genetics and molecular biology, means that
vertical integration with functional and clinical studies is more
important now than ever before. Vertical integration is central
to our strategies for the Post-genome Challenge and Health of
the Public. At the same time, a high proportion of MRC's most
important activities involve developing policies and practices
that are specific to the needs of the biomedical sector. These
MRC's funding schemes, which use
Centre Grants and Co-operative Grants to support infrastructure,
and build multidisciplinary and vertically integrated groupings
with critical mass.
MRC's work with the Health Departments
on research support in the new NHS.
MRC's training and career schemes,
which take account of the highly competitive international employment
market for biomedical researchers, and the special needs of researchers
who are also doctors (or other health professionals).
Progress in technology transfer,
where the ability of biomedical industry to exploit basic research
findings leads to approaches that are very different to those
in other sectors.
MRC's role in strengthening high
quality, responsible clinical research by developing operational
and ethical guidelines.
Each of the other Research Councils works with
similar, sector specific issues, ranging from the challenge of
delivering access to extraordinarily costly facilities needed
for atomic structure research, to the challenge of promoting knowledge
transfer from social and economic research to practice and policy.
MRC's strategic decision-making
2.7 A major theme of Realising Our Potential
was the need for clear strategies and priorities in funding
research and training, and for these policies to reflect user
needs, and to be as explicit and open as possible. MRC already
took a strategic approach to research managementfor example,
in developing Health Services Research through the 1980s and in
pump priming the Human Genome effort in the UK. Since 1993 we
have developed this further:
internally, we strengthened planning
mechanisms, and refined our tactics for implementing strategic
we maintained formal Concordats with
the Health Departments and the Department for International Development
(then ODA) (highlighted as a model in Realising Our Potential),
which have had an important input to MRC priorities, and established
new Concordats with MAFF, DETR, DTI, and MOD;
we strengthened industry representation
on MRC committees;
we produced more accessible and user-friendly
definitions for scientific strategy and funding priorities, and
published them on the Web.
The move to a three-year funding cycle within
government has also helped longer-term planning.
2.8 Partnerships with other funders is now
a pervasive feature of our strategic planning. For example MRC
worked with The Wellcome Trust on
some major projects, including the development of the Sanger Centre
and the current plans for a National Biomedical Collection of
up to 500,000 donated DNA samples. We co-ordinate activities with
The Wellcome Trust in many other areas;
developed closer links with the research
charities, most notably to establish the MRC/Cancer Research Campaign
Collaboration in Cambridge in 1999.
participated in new cross-Research
Council initiatives, such as funding for centres in tissue engineering
and medical informatics, and new programmes for research in metrology,
to encourage physical science graduates to develop careers in
biomedical research, and studies of the social, organisational,
and economic impacts of new health technologies.
established closer operational links
with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and agreed
a Concordat with the Welsh Assembly which encompasses their University
facilitated or led agreements on
large-scale, long-term industry funding for centres of excellence
in areas such as vaccines research, imaging, mouse models of gene
function, and cell signallinginvestments which are likely
to be more valuable to the economy and to the science base than
more dispersed, smaller scale contracts.
2.8 Some of these partnerships are the result
of a natural tendency for scientific fields to merge to create
new opportunitiessuch as the opportunities emerging in
biomedical informatics. However, these partnerships also play
other important roles, helping vertical integration of basic and
applied research in areas where MRC and charities support complementary
programmes, and creating centres with greater critical mass than
would otherwise be possible.
2.9 MRC supported the principle of Technology
Foresight when the White Paper was launched, and we gave substantial
support to the creation and work of the Health and Life Sciences
panel. Following the completion of the exercise, we built the
Technology Foresight reports into our 1995 strategy review, launched
two new LINK programmes, and helped develop new Foresight Challenge
2.10 Our assessment of the impact of the
national Foresight programme in the biomedical sector is that
the programme has played a part in a general improvement in academic/industry
co-operation and technology transfer. It helped define and validate
the main strands of thought on research priorities current at
the time, helping to raise the profile of the "integrative
biology" principle, and of research relevant to ageing. Especially
through Foresight Challenge, it prompted some collaborations to
emerge more quickly and with more commitment than might otherwise
have been the case.
But overall, Foresight has had only a moderate
impact on the health sector. There were already good academic-user
links in place in the biomedical sector, built on the strong research-orientation
of the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, and the applicability
of basic medical research. We found there was a close match between
MRC strategy and Foresight recommendations, and by 1996, our estimate
was that at least two-thirds of our research and training investments
were broadly relevant to Foresight themes.
2.11 There can be no doubt, as far as MRC
is concerned, that research funders must have forward looking
strategies and plans developed in consultation with researchers
and usersboth to ensure the quality and relevance of the
research, and to facilitate uptake. Key industries and other users
in our sector place a similar value on vision and strategic planning,
even if the full panoply of formal foresight methods are not always
2.12 The decision to undertake a second
round of Foresight was undoubtedly the right one, and it is encouraging
that the Foresight 2000 programme includes societal benefits and
problems from science and technology more explicitly, and has
more time and resources available. The indications are that it
should be able to contribute more than the 1994/95 exercise: MRC
will be taking account of the outputs in our strategy discussion
in Autumn 2000. In the longer term, the key questions will be
whether national, centrally directed, Foresight programmes are
the best way of developing strategic vision and partnerships,
and if so, how often they should be conducted.
2.13 The Science and Innovation Strategy
consultation paper discusses regional networks both in the context
of fostering clusters of innovative enterprises, and in the context
of ensuring manufacturing companies have access to relevant expertise
from the science base.
2.14 Incubators and knowledge transfer activities
in the life sciences can certainly be an effective long-term investment
by Regional Development Agencies. MRC's Scottish Collaborative
Centre was developed within partnership with Scottish Enterprise,
for instance. However, the added value from partial regional management
of academic-industry links in the biomedical sector will not be
as high as in some other sectors. In the pharmaceutical and biotechnology
sector, most successful companies tend to cluster in regions with
first-rate research Universities, and without a strong science
base, the return on regional investment will be poor. Moreover,
companies in the sector typically have a strong in-house R&D
capacity, and are highly effective at making and developing contacts
in the science base, and so less likely to need help in finding
advice. We would advise giving national knowledge transfer initiatives
a higher priority in this sector.
2.15 The interface between the health services
and research has a stronger regional dimension. High quality clinical
research in a particular condition will often depend on the presence
of a substantial patient group, and first rate diagnostic and
treatment facilities and services. And new research findings are
most likely to be applied first in those centres that have been
directly engaged in the research. MRC sees a need to develop joint
strategies, involving MRC, the NHS R&D programme, NHS regions,
and, often, charities, to foster centres or networks of research
and service excellence in particular diseases, to ensure the combination
of expertise, commitment, infrastructure and funding needed for
rapid innovation. We will be discussing with the Health Departments
how these ideas can be developed further.
3.1 Realising Our Potential highlighted
the fact that excessive reliance on short-term contracts to support
younger researchers would weaken confidence in research careers,
and reduce the productivity of some of the UK's most innovative
Research Councils, Funding Councils,
the Royal Society, and CVCP have agreed (1996) a Concordat on
Contract Research Staff setting out the standards expected in
terms of career advice, training, maternity arrangements and other
areas. Monitoring implementation suggests there have been modest
improvements in provision and take-up of this broader support
for contract staff.
MRC has expanded funding for Fellowships
and other personal awards, such as Research Professorships, to
provide a wider range of career paths at all levels.
the MRC funding schemes introduced
in 1997 provide the bulk of grant funding either as long-term
(5 year) awards, or as components of long-term support for Centres
and Co-operatives which provide a more stable research environment
and a wider range of career development opportunities for scientists
and technical support staff than was previously the case.
a new Career Establishment Grant
was also introduced in 1997, providing five years grant support
for younger researchers who have recently been given their first
university appointment. This scheme is intended to ensure new
academic staff have an opportunity to concentrate on developing
research programmes to the point where they can compete for funding
with more established teams, and has proved very popular.
MRC Units and Institutes have continued
to provide parallel career paths for those wishing to concentrate
on a full-time research career.
3.2 Despite the steps taken, we remain concerned
about the attractiveness of academic research careers. The Science
and Innovation Strategy consultation paper rightly states that
the overall volume of scientists trained in the UK is adequate.
The threats, however, are that research will fail to attract enough
of the highest quality graduates, and that in highly competitive
areas, such as genetics and bioinformatics, UK universities and
research centres will not be able to recruit and retain enough
3.3 At postgraduate level, we need to consider
further increases in the stipend, even if this means reductions
in the numbers of PhD students supported. In attracting and developing
the people who will lead UK science in the future, quality has
to be more important than quantity. MRC is planning a widespread
consultation exercise on the exact changes needed over the coming
3.4 The recommendations of the Independent
Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions (the Bett Committee)
are being considered as part of SR2000. MRC supports the case
for increases in national minimum salaries, but we also see a
need for greater flexibility for individual universities (and
other employers) to vary pay to reflect the recruitment and retention
problems in particular research or teaching areas. In the biomedical
sector, there is strong competition from industry and from the
USA, and while the flow of talent into industry is highly desirable,
in some areas, such as bioinformatics, the difficulty of retaining
first rate people in academic research will compromise universities'
capacity for leading edge research and research training.
3.5 A fresh look at universities' employment
policies and manpower planning could also help make research careers
more attractive by providing greater stability for staff on fixed
term contracts. It should be possible to offer longer term contracts,
and more active career management, to at least some of those currently
employed on a series of short-term contracts.
3.6 Realising Our Potential proposed
the widespread introduction of Masters-level research training
before a PhD, as a way of broadening post-graduate learning that
offered more flexibility than a four-year PhD. Since 1993, developments
in research and in employers' needs, and reductions in the amount
of practical laboratory experience in some first degrees, have
strengthened the case for four-year post-graduate training programmes.
While Realising Our Potential emphasised the need for transferable
skills, such as communications, teamworking and project management,
post-doctoral researchers also now need competence in a much broader
repertoire of research approaches and techniques than in the past.
3.7 Our pilot Research Masters programme
have been successful, and we are now considering how to broaden
provision. However, we expect that there will always remain a
substantial proportion of graduates who will be able to complete
a high quality PhD within three years, and there will be fields
in which this is more common than in others. Our policy will be
to offer options that are adaptable to individual circumstances.
3.8 For much of the last century, the UK's
reputation for outstanding medical research, coupled with a healthy
level of research funding from public funds and charities, meant
that it was able to attract many of the best scientists from around
the world to work here. Most other OECD countries have been strengthening
their investment in biomedical research over the last two decades,
and the UK cannot rest on its laurels. At the same time the higher
costs of establishing research programmes and Universities' difficulties
in offering start-up funding made moves to the UK less attractive
and more cumbersome.
3.9 The UK now needs to sustain a more active
approach to bringing in new people and ideas. After the last Spending
Review, MRC created a new fast-track funding mechanism to make
it easier for VCs to bring people from other countries to the
UK. Six appointments have been made using the scheme in the past
year, and in addition two scientists from abroad have come to
the UK to head major MRC units. MRC will continue both approaches,
and expects to make further awards this year.
4.1 MRC's policies for supporting the science
base have continued to evolve rapidly since 1993, and new response
mode funding schemes were introduced in 1997. The new schemesin
particular Centre and Co-operative Group Grantsfacilitate
the development of multidisciplinary groupings; help develop more
stable research groups with critical mass; and deliver infrastructure
support more effectively. At the same time Innovation Grants,
Development Grants, Career Establishment Grants, and other personal
awards, help ensure that greater stability is not achieved at
the expense of opportunities for new talent and ideas to develop.
4.2 Selective funding of excellent, relevant
research remains a central policy, but selectivity does not require
us to concentrate a higher proportion of funds in a few research-intensive
universities. Co-operative Group Grants have been awarded to universities
which have, overall, relatively few research active staff who
were highly rated in the RAE, but where there is a concentration
of excellence in a particular field. In these universities, the
Co-operative Group Grants can deliver infrastructure support,
that is not available from the Funding Councils, as well as raising
the visibility of the research.
4.3 Critical mass, selective and efficient
use of infrastructure funding, stability, and multidisciplinarity
are also achieved through partnerships. MRC's Centre Grants and
Development Grants provide opportunities to strengthen strategic
leadership in university research, and MRC hopes that strategies
for scientific direction, investment and recruitment developed
in partnership will help make better use of research funds.
4.4 MRC has also acted to strengthen multidisciplinary
research through partnerships with other Research Councils, and
its investment in peoplesuch as our initiative to attract
physical scientists to careers in biomedical research.
4.5 In parallel, MRC officials worded with
HEFCE in successive reviews of the Research Assessment Exercise,
advising on options for re-structuring the Medical Units of Assessment
to reflect better the multi-disciplinary nature of modern research,
and on options for improving assessment of applied clinical and
public health research. The current fundamental review of the
RAE may give opportunities for an even more flexible assessment
MRC Units and Institutes
4.6 Realising Our Potential suggested
that some of the research establishments supported by government
departments might be suitable candidates for privatisation. The
review of Public Sector Research Establishments that followed,
and the subsequent Prior Options reviews, broadened the scope
of their inquiry to include some Research Council establishments.
Here, the question posed was usually whether the establishment
could not be equally well run by a university, rather than as
part of the public sector. The reviews confirmed that:
Units and Institutes can have a key
role in complementing University research work by creating focused,
mission-oriented research teams, with effective scientific leadership
and professionally managed facilities and supporting infrastructure.
MRC's management of its Units and
Institutes is effective, using stringent peer review, and recycling
from lower priority areas, to maintain internationally competitive
research programmes. MRC Units have a typical (median) life-span
of about 20 years.
MRC's strategy of placing Units and
Institutes on campus, and encouraging close links with University
research, benefits both parties.
4.7 Nevertheless MRC recognises the importance
of thinking radically and laterally when reviewing major investments.
For example we are replacing direct funding for key imaging facilities
and techniques development with joint public/industrial funding
through a newly formed company. Our Strategy Development Group
addresses the fundamental questions about MRC's role in a particular
field, and the rationale for future direct ownership of research
centres, in advance of each quinquennial review of every MRC establishment.
5.1 Realising Our Potential put more
emphasis on meeting the needs of industry through collaboration,
co-ordination and Foresight, than on improving exploitation of
the science base, or developing industry's capacity for innovation.
Where it addressed exploitation (2.9-2.19) it emphasised access
to public sector R&D by industry, rather than work by the
research community to overcome the development gap and get scientific
advances into practice, or, indeed, the innovativeness of UK industry.
Nevertheless, some of the most impressive changes since 1993 have
been in the way we facilitate commercial exploitation of academic
knowledge and discoveries. Across the UK science base, awareness
of commercial exploitation issues, and the commitment and professionalism
with which it is pursued, have all greatly improved.
5.2 Within MRC, progress in exploiting the
science in our Units and Institutes has included:
continuing the development of our
central Technology Transfer Group, which in 1999 was formed into
a company, MRC Technology;
forming the UK Medical Ventures Fund
in 1998, with £40 million raised entirely from private sector
investors, on the strength of MRC's track record in science and
exploitation, to support start-ups and other ventures based on
helping set up spin-out companies.
There are now 13 companies in operation which were formed by MRC,
which will directly employ over 380 people in 2000, almost all
in high-skill jobs;
expanding revenue from IPR licensing.
In 1999-2000 income was £7.6 million, compared with £0.8
million in 1993-4. A major part of this revenue is from "humanised"
monoclonal antibody technology which is being used successfully
by a wide range of biotech and pharmaceuticals companies in new
therapies for breast cancer, infections, organ rejection, and
forming a Scottish Collaborative
Centre to act as an incubator for new ventures and collaborations
from MRC research in the region.
5.3 MRC's exploitation track record since
1993 confirms that the principle of keeping fundamental and applied
research within MRC's remit was right. The most successful spin-out
companies and patents have been based on some of our most basic
and original scientific research, but this could not have been
exploited without specialised knowledge of the medical sector.
MRC's size, and centralised exploitation team has also allowed
us to "bundle together" intellectual property from different
sources to create stronger commercial opportunities.
5.4 The UK, however, still lags behind the
USA in the vigour with which it exploits its scientific excellence.
Some of this may be simply because the UK entered the race later
than the USA, and still has a relatively small pool of entrepreneurial
expertise. But there is also still a more visible "development
gap" in the UK than in the USA. By "development gap"
we mean the stage at which academic research has produced potentially
exploitable findings, and enough evidence to publish an important
scientific paper, but where further work is needed before commercial
investors can be convincedfor instance, it may be necessary
to prove the results are applicable in enough situations to be
commercially interesting. This can entail a substantial amount
of work and expenseperhaps 6-18 months' commitment from
an experienced post-doctoral scientist. Only a couple of the UK's
venture capital funds are prepared to invest at this early stage.
The many public funding schemes designed to promote knowledge
transfer are typically targeted to support collaborations with
existing commercial work, incubators, or entrepreneurial skill
development, but direct funding of this risky seedcorn stage is
limited: indeed the 1993 White Paper emphasised that public funds
should normally be reserved for more basic research, and did not
envisage exceptions in this area. MRC can sometimes provide seedcorn
funding at this stagethis has been a function of our Collaborative
Centres from the outsetbut the sums available from MRC
and through university incubators can only meet a fraction of
the demand. We consider there is a strong case for additional
public funding in this area: rather than add to the large number
of special, targeted schemes already in existence, the funds should
flow through existing mechanisms with the capacity to judge scientific
merit and to quickly bring scientific expertise to bear on particular
problemsie through universities and Research Councils.
5.5 This is not the same as saying that
the UK is generally weak at applied research. There are many
areas of applied researchsuch as public sector clinical
trials and health services researchin which the UK science
base is internationally outstanding. Here MRC and the Department
of Health have played a leading role in developing standards over
the last 10 years, and while we find that UK academic culture
and university funding systems sometimes undervalue such work,
these areas of research have not developed more quickly in other
countries. The issue is rather whether past policies on the role
of public funding at the academic/industry interface have been
5.6 The Science and Innovation Strategy
consultation paper also discusses the balance between investment
in basic technology and basic science. Recent developments in
generic research technologysuch as PCR, monoclonal antibodies,
confocal microscopy, micro-arrays, bioinformatics, and imagingare
currently driving the pace of progress in the biomedical research
sector, and research technologies often find early application
in clinical practice. The pattern of development is often different
to that in other sectors, however. New technologiessuch
as monoclonal antibodies or confocal microscopyoften emerge
from very basic, curiosity led research programmes, sometimes
at first as a means to an end, rather than with the aim of developing
a new technology. The time between concept and application can
also be particularly short: the gap between MRC funding for Professor
Southern's work that led to micro-array technology and its world-wide
use in genome research was less than ten years. So while MRC provides
substantial funding to research that is intended to develop new
generic technologies, or does so serendipitously, there is often
no firm divide between technology development and mainstream biomedical
5.7 Application of MRC research in the health
service and other public services raises a different set of issues,
which are equally important. In a small number of areas, new medical
technologies are likely to be developed from initial concept through
to clinical application almost entirely in the public and charitable
sectors. This is likely to be the case for some gene therapy applications,
immunotherapies, transplants, and vaccines. In these areas, there
is a need to develop university infrastructure and research management
skills, and clinical facilities to allow the effective management
of the more complex R&D process, and to ensure safety. This
need can best be met by focussed investment in a relatively small
number of centres of excellenceMRC is already funding such
developments, but further investment will be needed.
5.8 In most cases, however, the need is
for knowledge transfer to inform health policies or medical practice.
The Department of Health has led the way in developing the Cochrane
Collaboration, NICE, and other bodies to assist the development
of evidence-basic practice. There is still some scope for improvement,
however. In particular, all of these activities depend on the
time of university staff, MRC staff, and NHS staff, in assembling
and assessing the scientific evidence, and the UK needs to ensure
that university funding models, and academic career paths give
sufficient incentives for public-sector knowledge transfer activities.
6. THE PUBLIC'S
6.1 Realising Our Potential emphasised
the value to the country as a whole of a more scientifically-
and technologically-informed population, and encouraged new initiatives
to complement the many schemes already in existence. Science teaching
in schools was also recognised as critical, not only to the general
science-literacy of society, but as the source of knowledge, inspiration,
and careers information for future generations of researchers.
6.2 Since 1993, the commitment of most biomedical
researchers to communicating their work to wider audiences has
undoubtedly increased, as has the quality of their presentation.
Most also recognise the need to go beyond communicating science,
to engagement in dialogue about the potential impact of the application
of their work on society, individuals and the environment.
6.3 Since 1993, the Medical Research Council
has developed a strategy for communications with all of its various
publics. The steps taken include:
expanding MRC's press team to facilitate
media coverage of MRC science, and to support scientists and doctors
in presenting their work. This work spans the range from explaining
complex issues of risk and interpretation of scientific data (such
as in relation to the evidence of links between the MMR vaccine
and autism or irritable bowel disease), to engendering interest
in major new clinical trials and population studies, to explaining
scientific breakthroughs and milestones;
launching a Schools Programme (1993)to
provide teachers and pupils with compelling material (both written
and electronic) on medical science;
organising and/or sponsoring numerous
events to inform and interest the wider public in science, including
presentations and practical demonstrations in major "general
interest" exhibitions, shopping malls, and railway stations;
organising events to maintain the
awareness of GPs and other health professionals of genetics and
other fast-moving areas in medical research;
developing programmes of communications
training for scientists, covering general communications skills,
skills for schools work on particular issues (eg the use of animals
in research), and media skills.
6.4 However, in emphasising "public
understanding of science" the White Paper overlooked the
many other factors that contribute to the public's relationship
with science and its applications. To create a relationship of
trust, scientists and policy makers alike need to understand the
public and their attitudes and worries, and to be seen to listen
and learn. Over the last few years the Medical Research Council
has been giving a higher priority to work that improves our understanding
of the public's views, and to work that creates dialogue and engagement
around real issues, which in turn helps people to understand the
context in which scientific information is used.
we have formed a Consumer Liaison
Panel to help us improve consumer input into MRC's business;
as part of the planning for a large
scale collection of donated DNA samples, we have been listening
to the public's attitudes, questions and concerns in focus groups,
and are now planning the next stage, a more focused consultation
on the specifics of how the collection should be run. We have
already completed a consultationmainly with specialists
and public interest groupson the general ethical principles
that should apply;
in 1999, we commissioned MORI to
undertake an in-depth study of public attitudes to the use of
animals in research, encompassing their level of knowledge, trust
in existing regulations, values, and reasoning, and published
we are organising a series of briefings
for opinion formers on topic issues, such as stem cells, cloning,
and animal experimentation.
The recent report of the House of Lord's Science
and Technology Committee, Science and Society (February 2000),
provided a timely and welcome call for greater emphasis on dialogue,
and a move a way from the 1993 models of "public understanding
of science". We hope this thinking would be reflected in
the proposed White Paper.
6.5 Science and Society also held that although
most UK scientists are now more committed to communication than
in 1993, there is still a need to promote more and higher quality
work by individuals and by universities. We agree that there is
a need to continue improving skills, and encouraging commitment
of resources, especially as dialogue is inevitably more time consuming
and challenging than straightforward explanation of science. It
is also important to emphasise the value of local activities based
around a particular town, interest group, or networkas
Realising Our Potential stated "Successful promotion
of the public understanding of science and technology is most
likely to be achieved by organisations and individual scientists
and engineers passing on their knowledge and enthusiasms within
their local communities". These links can be particularly
valuable in that they avoid some of the artificiality of attempts
to create dialogue and trust on a national scale. MRC is continuing
to facilitate local links, and is well placed to do so by building
on its Units and Institutes across the country. We are also looking
at ways of encouraging universities to strengthen their communications
work in these areas.
6.6 The consultation paper on Science and
Innovation Strategy emphasises the role of transparency in improving
public confidence. In our experience it is essential for the scientific
reasoning behind advice to the public, and for information about
the individuals and processes involved in formulating the advice,
to be made available.
6.7 But we have to be aware that information
may raise, rather than quell, anxieties, especially at first.
When new information about, for example health and environmental
risks, emerges, it is difficult to put in context, and there are
always those who have an interest in sensationalising the "new
revelations". The objective has to be to develop a tradition
of more informed debate over many years, not to seek quick solutions.
6.8 Also, while secrecy and bias are definitely
news, openness and good decision-making are not. What the public
are not aware of will have no impact on their confidence in science
and innovation. For example, in the study they conducted for us,
MORI found that there was very little awareness that the UK had
a robust, centralised, regulatory system controlling the use of
animals. With that starting point, important features of the system
such as the involvement of animal welfarists in the Animal Procedures
Committee, or the wealth of information and statistics available
to those who know where to look, must have little impact. Experience
also shows that exercises in public dialogue, such as citizen's
juries or consensus conferences on topics like transgenic plants
of xenotransplantation, are seldom mentioned when these issues
are covered in the media. Transparency, therefore, has to be an
active process. To build confidence, the processes governing science
and scientific policy making have to be energetically publicised,
explained and defended by Government and by scientific organisations.
6.9 Finally, there also have to be some
limits to openness. For example, in areas of high public interest
close to policy-making, such as TSEs research, the clamour for
immediate public disclosure of undigested scientific results needs
to be kept in check.
7.1 The UK has, on the whole, made good
progress towards the goals set out in the White Paper for EU funding
(6.8-6.11). The key themes in the Commission's Fifth Framework
Programme reflect broad UK research strategiesfor example,
in the emphasis on post-genome approaches, and ageing researchand
MRC played a key role, together with the Department of Health,
in developing the biomedical aspects of the "Quality of Life.."
programme in Framework V.
7.2 MRC, and the other UK Research Councils,
also have a crucial role to play in ensuring that Framework VI
meets UK science needs in the European context. It will be important
to continue the close consultation and co-operationfacilitated
by OSTbetween government departments and Research Councils,
that has characterised the UK negotiations for previous Framework
7.3 The 1993 White Paper "Realising
Our Potential" focused very much on international research
collaboration as a means of improving UK economic output, but
did not discuss the role of research in international developmentboth
in delivering new solutions to health problems, informing policies,
and developing countries own research capacity. MRC has a very
effective concordat with DFID (formerly ODA), which includes the
provision for the transfer of some funds from DFID to MRC to enable
us to address shared strategic priorities in Developing Societies.
Areas of common interest include:
a major AIDS research programme in
Uganda, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1999. This has
had a major impact in controlling the epidemic in this country,
whilst also providing unique insights into the clinical pathogenesis
of AIDS following HIV infection. A new programme on AIDS vaccines
in Kenya is also about to be launched.
a "contraceptive development
network", linking the MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit
in Edinburgh with nodes in China, Hong Kong, S. Africa and Nigeria.
This network for clinical studies is specifically designed to
overcome the development gap between basic research and the pharmaceutical
industry, in a very sensitive but critically important area.
a substantial research programme
in The Gambia, which celebrated its 50th anniversary recently.
This programme is focused on important infectious disease such
as malaria and TB, but is also now expanding into research on
non-infectious diseases, such as diabetes. The burden of these
diseases in developing societies is now increasing dramatically.
7.4 What each of these strategic programmes
have in common is that they exploit unique clinical research opportunities
that do not exist in the UK, whilst addressing crucial global
health issues, which are of particular importance to the host
countries. To co-ordinate these activities and explore further
opportunities for strategic overseas investment, a new MRC Advisory
Committee on Overseas Research has recently been established.
We have also set-up a panel to advise Council on the important
ethical aspects of this research and MRC is an active participant
and sponsor of the Global Forum on Bioethics in Research.
7.5 Science is a global venture, and as
discussed earlier the UK must actively look abroad for new talent
and ideas if it is to maintain its excellence. Apart from MRC's
specific initiative to promote recruitment from abroad, all MRC
Units and Institutes have extensive international collaborations,
and the international visibility of flagship institutes such s
the Laboratory for Molecular Biology and National Institute for
Medical Research allows them to act as a focus for collaborations
and exchanges. With the exception of PhD studentships, all MRC
training and career development awards are open to non-UK applicants
and our grant support schemes allow for recruitment from overseas.
7.6 While most scientists in the UK need
little incentive to form collaborations with colleagues based
in other countries, MRC has a strategic role in ensuring that
mechanisms are in place to promote international collaboration,
and in exploring opportunities that might further UK interests.
We are responsible for the UK subscriptions to two major international
funding agenciesHFSP and EMBC/EMBO/EMBL, both of which
we are currently reviewing with regard to their value to UK science.
We are also constantly considering whether strategic alliances
can help strengthen UK science in particular priority areas. We
have recently agreed with CNRS, France, to establish joint programmes
in the UK, and have established a joint committee with France
and Germany to consider use of DNA microarray technologies in
Europe, an area where a concerted international approach offers
scientific benefits and cost savings.
17 Our comments concentrate on those trained as solely
scientists. We assume that the challenge of developing a stronger
cadres of clinician-researchers is outside the scope of this enquiry. Back