Councils may lose medical funding

May 26, 2006

The merger of research funding at the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council could divert millions of pounds from the other research councils, The Times Higher can reveal.

Chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to create a single fund for health research in his Budget speech. The Times Higher has learnt that Sir David Cooksey, who has been appointed to manage a consultation on how the body should work, is broadening his investigation to include research councils other than the MRC.

Sir David has met the chief executives of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, and is set to meet the head of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council soon.

These councils fund work that influences the health agenda, and insiders said this week that they were becoming extremely nervous about losing control of their basic research budgets. The BBSRC is a particular target because it has highlighted health as a key part of its mission.

David Delpy, vice-provost of University College London and a member of the BBSRC council, said: "Diversity of funding and diversity of thought is something that science really needs.

"My feeling is that the effect on basic research of a radical change, with all activities coming under one body, would be detrimental. In the short term, I would want to restrict any changes to the MRC and the DH."

A senior research council figure said: "We are all agreed that there will be a continuing need for medical research to interact with other disciplines in predictable and unpredictable ways. To produce a definitive carve-up of what is and isn't medical research now would be wrong."

Julia Goodfellow, chief executive of the BBSRC, said: "Whatever the outcome of Sir David Cooksey's review, the council wishes to see strong links between any new structure and the other research councils."

This week, ten Nobel laureates wrote to The Times arguing that the new funding body must be based on the existing MRC model.

Sir John Walker, who spearheaded the letter campaign, said: "It ain't broken, so don't fix it. We have something that works extremely well and is recognised worldwide as doing so."

Sir John warned that the Government must not attempt to separate clinical and basic research. He said: "They feed off each other - to separate them would be extremely unwise."

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