Scientists fear funding threat to ‘stellar’ MRC research units

New Medical Research Council funding model will undermine world-famous research centres, claim researchers

三月 2, 2023
‘Stellar’ MRC units ‘at risk’ from council’s funding shift
Source: Getty

Some of Britain’s top medical research centres might struggle to attract the same high-calibre international researchers once their core budgets are cut by as much as 70 per cent under a new funding model, senior scientists have warned.

At present, the Medical Research Council (MRC) spends about 40 per cent of its £548 million annual budget on long-term investments in its institutes, centres and units, the last of which receive up to about £10 million a year and are reviewed every five years. However, a review of MRC units in 2020 identified new areas of research where there were “clear opportunities to improve impact”, and the council announced a new MRC Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) model last year – in which unit funding is capped at £3 million annually from next year.

In addition, MRC core grants will fund only up to 30 per cent of the salaries of the unit’s principal investigators and leadership team “in line with their research contribution”, while support for PhD studentships will be limited to two a year.

With the deadline for the first CoRE funding call just passed, unit leaders and scientists have now expressed their concerns. Tim Dalgleish, programme leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (CBU), which has been based at the University of Cambridge for almost 80 years, tweeted that when its current funding expires in 2027, it would be “an end of an era for the CBU as we know it”. The centre later tweeted “discussions are underway with [Cambridge] and MRC for the transition to the CoRE” model, although some have questioned how universities would cover the costs of the “partnership model” envisaged by the MRC, with seven MRC units based in Cambridge.

Wendy Bickmore, director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, which houses more than 200 scientists, support staff and PhDs, told Times Higher Education that the smaller core grants available to the new MRC centres would make it harder to pursue scientific excellence and to develop careers.

“To make significant discoveries in science, you require three things: scale, sustainability and career opportunities for scientists,” explained Professor Bickmore, whose MRC unit, which won a £53 million core five-year grant in 2018, is funded until at least 2027-28. “If you want to have team science, you need a cohesive collective of scientists with no or very few walls between laboratories – which is what MRC units provide.

“To think big, you also need long-term sustained funding – you cannot do that if you are always looking over your shoulder for the next grant,” continued Professor Bickmore, who said the scale of larger units provided important opportunities for PhDs, postdocs and technical specialists to progress their careers. “I think we need more large research institutes – more Sangers, Cricks and LMBs – not fewer,” she said, adding that the MRC appeared to be “going in the other direction” with the CoRE model.

That sentiment echoes comments by George Freeman, the science minister, who has frequently spoken of the need for “long-term sustainable funding” of research institutes with a record of scientific excellence and who expressed surprise over the plans for MRC units.

Rogier Kievit, professor of developmental neuroscience at Radboud University Medical Center and a former MRC group leader at Cambridge’s CBU, said the diminution of world-famous research centres could make it harder to attract international scientific talent.

“The new scheme has positives, but it takes years or decades for a place to build up a reputation and character,” said Professor Kievit, who said he joined Cambridge on a relatively low postdoc salary “because the CBU is such an amazing place, scientifically and socially, with a stellar reputation that many people use as a career launch pad”. That reputational pull “simply won’t happen with overly new institutes that don’t have the name recognition yet”, he added.

In a statement, the MRC said it was “shifting the way it funds its long-term research”. The CoREs, whose funding will be reviewed every seven years, would “draw on the best from MRC’s current unit and centre investment models and adopts a new, bold, challenge-led approach”, it said.

“New ideas will be encouraged, while existing units will also have the opportunity to evolve into the new approach, with support to help manage this change over a phased period of time,” it added, stating that the MRC had “a long history of supporting excellent science through large, long-term strategic investments”. It would “continue to invest the same proportion of its budget through MRC CoRE funding and other strategic investment routes”.


Print headline: ‘Stellar’ MRC units ‘at risk’ from council’s funding shift



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