Money-go-round draws crowds

November 12, 2004

Hundreds of medical researchers may face rejection after an unexpected flood of applications for grants from the Medical Research Council.

The Government's major funder of basic medical research confirmed this week that almost 700 had indicated that they wish to apply for funding from the next funding round in January 2005 - hundreds more than the council can ever hope to fund.

The sudden upsurge suggests that trust among the academics in the council has been restored, following a highly critical report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in March last year slamming the council for leaving its research community in the dark about its funding problems.

But Colin Blakemore, who took over as chief executive of the council in the wake of the select committee's report, admitted that this presented the council with an entirely different sort of public relations problem.

He told The Times Higher : "I'm very pleased by the evidence that the research community is returning to the MRC."

"But it is important for applicants to be aware that the increased demand will inevitably cause a decrease in the overall funding rate, despite the fact that we have more money for grants this year than last."

Aware that there was a pent-up demand for funding within its community, the MRC had taken the unusual step of asking researchers to register their intention to apply for funding in the January-February 2005 grants round by the end of this week. The final tally has yet to be announced, but at the last count the council had received 658 intentions to apply.

This indicates a major increase on this year's figures, when the MRC had 200 applications for the May-June round, and 310 for the October-November round.

If all those who have registered their interest go on to submit full applications, the success rate is bound to plummet.

The flood of applications may be partly due to news of extra funding, which was received eagerly by a disgruntled community at the start of this year.

The council has an allocation of £163 million for new research grants in 2004-05, compared with only £100 million the year before.

At the beginning of this year, the MRC also pleased researchers by announcing a return to funding smaller project grants alongside grants for larger programmes.

To make this possible, the council abandoned its resoundingly unpopular cooperative grants scheme, which was criticised for creating marriages of convenience across the research community.

The new grants system is designed to be more flexible and science-led.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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