Fear silenced grant protests

March 28, 2003

Caroline Davis reports on criticism of Medical Research Council grant process

A climate of fear prevented top-rated UK medical researchers speaking out about the way the Medical Research Council managed its grants process, The THES can reveal.

A number of leading researchers, who were furious that the council had not told them or the expert review panels that refereed their applications that it had no budget for new grants, felt that they could not complain about the situation for fear of being blackballed for future grants.

They said that UK clinical research trials, which are costly and long term, have been particularly badly hit.

Eventually, 20 scientists who had had large, top-rated bids turned down complained to the House of Commons science and technology committee. When the committee published its damning report into the MRC this week, two of these researchers told their stories to The THES , but neither wanted to be identified.

An academic in one of the UK's largest clinical groups said she had lost her research idea to a North American team after her alpha-A rated application to the MRC was turned down.

During the two years it took to make the decision, she had not been allowed to apply to other funding sources, but the council had given her repeated hope that her proposal would be funded.

She said: "Funding has never been in such dire straits. I might as well have been playing in a sand pit."

Another researcher applied to the MRC to fund a large-scale eight-year cancer trial. She was turned down last year after a wait of more than two years. The trial had been given a top rating and was ranked fourth among the top 18 trials by an international peer-review committee.

The researcher was forced to make two of her research team redundant and she said that she had lost a promotion as she had not pulled in the funding.

"All the way through I had to respond to what the reviewers said. It was very onerous. I should have been told earlier if there wasn't going to be money," she said.

Richard Joyner, chair of Save British Science and dean of research at Nottingham Trent University, said the MRC had the reputation of being less open than other research councils as it served a limited community. He called for an independent review of the council by a professional medical body.

After the spending review settlement in 1998, the council awarded £216 million to new projects. By 2001, the MRC spent just £101 million on new awards. The total number of grants had fallen from 1,500 in 1996-97 to 250 in 2000-01.

The committee found the MRC was guilty of "poor financial management and poor planning with too many funds committed over long periods, leading to large numbers of top-quality grant proposals being turned down".

Its report says: "The anger of the research community at the MRC's funding problems is not only understandable but entirely justified. The MRC has failed to make realistic predictions about future income."

MRC chief executive Sir George Radda rejected the criticisms in the report.

He said: "It is riddled with errors, mistakes and misunderstandings. They have twisted statements we have made. I don't know what they have against the MRC."

However, he admitted the council could have managed its funds better and been more open.

The committee's report says: "Professor Radda told us that the MRC was 'paying a price' for the increase in funding in 1999-2000. This is an unfortunate phrase: it is the medical research community that is paying the price."

The council's website now carries details of funding available. It states:

"We understand the research community's irritation with the constraints we and they now face. With hindsight, it could be argued that we should have committed less in good times."

Science minister Lord Sainsbury said: "We recognise that the MRC has not managed some of its financial processes as well as it might."

The MRC is the third research council to admit financial problems. In 2001, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council reported a £12 million shortfall, and last year the Natural Environment Research Council cancelled a round of grants after discovering a £13 million shortfall.

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