Cash injection raises people power

January 8, 1999

The Medical Research Council was the big winner in the spending review. It plans to put its windfall into people, by luring top talent from abroad and providing more training. Julia Hinde reports

People are the Medical Research Council's highest priority, says George Radda, the council's chief executive. "If you don't have good people, then you can't do the research."

Such thinking seems to be leading the way as the MRC plans how to spend its windfall from the comprehensive spending review. There will be an extra Pounds 44 million per year by 2001-2 and an extra Pounds 90 million over the next three years. Much of the money will be used to lure top-name biomedical researchers from overseas to work in United Kingdom universities and research units and to recruit young people working abroad who could become future unit leaders. There is also talk of changes to existing MRC training programmes. "We think the extra money we have should be put into people," Professor Radda says.

In percentage terms, the MRC was the big research council winner from the CSR allocations. With post-genome research - using knowledge derived from sequencing the human genome to better understand how the body functions in health and disease - repeatedly highlighted as a government spending priority, Professor Radda's assertion that this is the "decade of biomedical research" seems to have been heard at the heart of government. Over the next three years the MRC's science budget allocation will rise by 15 per cent in cash terms and 6.8 per cent in real terms to Pounds 334 million in 2001-2.

This explains the upbeat mood at the MRC, which last month unveiled its contribution to the genetic sequencing of a worm - the first complex creature to be fully sequenced. "We can now say science is an area of the future," Professor Radda says. "Before, people said science research was an area you didn't want to be in. But it now seems to be being taken seriously by government."

In the wake of the October CSR allocation, the MRC announced the first of its plans. Among a number of new initiatives to be funded is an international research unit to identify, understand and treat human BSE, and a cancer unit in Cambridge to be run with the Cancer Research Campaign. The cancer unit will be led by Cambridge University's Ron Laskey, who has a reputation for attracting some of the best young people, particularly for bringing them back from abroad, an MRC priority for 1999.

In the last months of 1998, the MRC told universities of its intention to offer a fast-track funding stream to help bring exceptional, high-calibre researchers to the UK from abroad. Until now, universities keen to catch a high-profile researcher from abroad could apply for MRC research grants to establish new research centres, as well as using other sources of funding, but decisions on MRC grants have often taken eight months or so to process.

"No one is attracted to research in the UK that way," Professor Radda explains. Now, in exceptional cases, the council has decided it should abandon its normal process of peer review and instead offer a much more rapid response. A yes or no could be forthcoming in a matter of weeks.

On offer under the scheme would be high-level funding for four years in university departments, some of which may have seen the benefit of Joint Infrastructure Fund support (also announced as part of the CSR), which is set to bring at least Pounds 300 million in new infrastructure and equipment to university biomedical research departments in the next few years. The International Appointments Initiative, open to universities and units, is expected to be worth about Pounds 8 million over the next four years.

According to Professor Radda, universities' response to the initiative over the past month or so has been overwhelming, with hundreds of names being suggested. He stresses that only the highest quality candidates are being sought. No big fish have yet been netted, or at least named publicly, but announcements are expected over the next month or two.

It is not just established names that the MRC wants to attract. The research council has also written to its 40 or so institutes and units, which are mostly based in universities but whose staff are funded by the MRC, proposing a scheme to help attract potential team leaders.

The MRC is also proposing a review of its training to make sure there are suitable career paths and incentives to attract top researchers. The review, which Professor Radda says will be largely informal, could lead to new training schemes or even a boost to PhD stipends, which are already higher than those offered by the other research councils. "We are reasonably happy with most of our training schemes," Professor Radda says. "But we have protected the budget for training when our income was coming down, and we will be looking now at how to boost it."

Already a gap has been noted in the support for clinical researchers. This group is causing considerable concern among some in medical research who fear that the new, more structured Calman specialist medical training is making it difficult for would-be researchers to get off the clinical progression ladder to do a PhD or other research training.

The extent of the problem is being investigated by the new Academy of Medical Sciences, though Professor Radda notes that the MRC has not seen a drop in quality of applicants for clinical fellowships.

What the research council is proposing, however, is a new level of training fellowship to help clinical researchers as they progress. It proposes to pay particular attention to research in cardiology, where the clinical training is particularly demanding.

With the emphasis in the CSR very much on maintaining the UK's lead in genomics and the post-genome challenge, Professor Radda notes that the MRC plans to use much of the additional money to expand its work in this area, with talk of a functional genomics group, increased work addressing the function of genes in mice, and more training in bioinformatics.

But Professor Radda also highlights the importance being placed on public-health research. "In the past, research in that area has been descriptive," he said. "Now we want to look to the methods behind it. We are looking to link epidemiology and genomics; why certain people exposed to certain lifestyles get disease and others do not. We want to use the information from genomics to link to public health."

He adds: "The genome and post-genome research is the new thing, but we are not ignoring old things such as infectious diseases or clinical trials. It is very important to see the extremes of the work we support. We are trying to present the MRC's case as an integrated approach to the understanding of human disease."

DIFFERENT RULES FOR A DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENT

The MRC - whose mission is to "promote and support high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related training in the biomedical and other sciences with the aim of maintaining and improving human health" - operates in many ways in a different environment from the other research councils.

Unlike some fields, medical research has a wealth of non-governmental supporters. In 1997, the MRC spent Pounds 308 million on biomedical research and training. Next year, the Department of Health will plough Pounds 500 million into medical R&D.

Charities, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Cancer Research Campaign and hundreds of smaller charities, plough money into research. The Wellcome Trust alone spends about Pounds 300 million a year on biomedical research, and two-thirds of charities' research spend goes to universities and medical schools. (A 1997 Wellcome Trust reportfound that charities fund more than twice as many biomedical research papers as the MRC in the UK.) On top of this, the drugs industry spends vast sums on biomedical research.

All this means that the MRC, which unlike the other research councils has avoided a move from London to Swindon, must complement, but to an extent also compete with, other funders to make the best use of public resources.

It pays its researchers considerably higher stipends than the other research councils. And last year, its university grant scheme was revamped, with short-term stand-alone project grants scrapped for a package of grants that encourages more collaboration and is designed to help younger and innovative researchers.

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