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No confidence in the MRC

Christopher Martyn
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcg080 389-390 First published online: 1 June 2003

As anyone interested in biomedical research must know, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently issued a highly critical report on the workings of the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC). Even at a time when the world’s journalists were preoccupied with the war in Iraq, the report made headlines: ‘Diabolical incompetence’, wrote the Financial Times; ‘MPs lambast top research body’, said BBC News; ‘Research funding wasted on useless projects’ thundered the Times.

The chairman of the committee, Dr Ian Gibson, believes (reasonably enough) that bodies in receipt of large amounts of taxpayers’ money should submit to public scrutiny and be held accountable for what they spend. Last year his committee looked into government funding of the scientific learned societies. Although they criticized some of these societies for the Byzantine way in which they elected their fellows and for their ineffective efforts in the public communication of science, the general conclusion was that these bodies achieved a good deal with the money that they received from the Office of Science and Technology, and that government should make more use of their collective expertise. It is worth mentioning this to show that the committee has no anti-science bias, and no cost-cutting axe to grind. Indeed, before he became MP for Norwich North, the chairman was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia, and presumably knows a thing or two about developing coherent strategies for research, and creating environments in which high-quality scientific endeavour can prosper.

Among a long list of criticisms about the working of the MRC, they highlighted poor financial management and poor planning. A consequence was that many research proposals given the highest grade by peer reviewers could not be funded. As the MRC’s chief executive, Sir George Radda, was forced to admit when questioned by the committee, ‘…with hindsight we should have had more foresight’. These criticisms will hardly come as news to the biomedical research community. Had you eavesdropped at any scientific gathering over the last few years, you would have heard the same sort of thing. The report, however, validates our complaints, and shows that they amount to much more than sour grapes from researchers whose grant proposals have been turned down. It should also make us ask ourselves why we have put up with this state of affairs for so long.

In compiling the report, the committee considered both written and oral evidence from a wide range of people with a stake in medical research. One worrying feature was that most of the scientists who gave evidence chose to present their views anonymously. (The exceptions deserve our admiration.) Why would they have elected to comment in this way unless they felt that voicing criticism of the MRC would damage their prospects of success in subsequent grant applications? The MRC say that their only criterion for funding is the quality of the science in the application, and we must believe them. But perhaps those who asked to remain anonymous found it hard to forget that the MRC administration controls the selection of peer reviewers, and has the power of appointment to the boards that recommend what shall and shall not be funded. It is difficult to interpret this perceived need for anonymity in any other way than an indication of lack of trust in the relationship between researchers and the UK’s main public funding body.

MRC have responded to the report by accusing the committee of failing to recognize that their mission is to promote medical research with a view to improving human health.1 This is absurd. Anyone who takes the trouble to read the report and the evidence on which it is based2 can see that the committee’s gripe is not with the mission but with how the mission is being conducted. Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the MRC, also tried to defend the MRC’s record in a letter to the Times. He drew attention to the fact that it was MRC scientists who had discovered the structure of DNA, and that the MRC had funded research that had led to the important advances in health care such as monoclonal antibodies and trials of aspirin in heart disease. This is equally specious. How can past achievements, however glorious, justify current administrative incompetence?

Let us hope that the MRC think again and, rather than try to rebut the points made in the report, respond more creatively. The biomedical research community in the UK urgently needs the MRC to overhaul its opaque and unsatisfactory administrative processes. It would like to see an end to initiatives such as collaborative groups that make it harder rather than easier to obtain research funding. Most of all, it wants the MRC to bring into the open the way in which it determines its scientific strategy and sets its research priorities.

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