MRC cash boost gives researchers new hope

February 20, 2004

The Medical Research Council took a major step towards winning back a disgruntled research community with last week's unveiling of a radical overhaul of its funding system, which includes the return of grants for small research projects.

As well as changing the way it distributes its money, the MRC has confirmed that it has a bigger budget for the year ahead. It has £163 million for new research grants, compared with £100 million the year before, although £43 million of that is spending review money earmarked for specific areas of science.

Announcing the changes, Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the research council, admitted that the MRC had upset many researchers when it cut funds for scientists' own ideas and moved away from smaller project grants. But he said medical researchers should feel positive about the future.

The council's new funding system is designed to be more flexible and science-led.

Project grants will be back on the agenda, alongside larger programme grants. None of the research grants will be fixed. It will be up to researchers to make a case for how much money and time is needed for each piece of work.

The unpopular cooperative grant scheme, which Professor Blakemore acknowledged had forced researchers together artificially, will be dropped.

Instead, researchers will be able to seek additional collaboration grants to supplement their standard research grants.

The council's internal structure will also change. The research boards that judge applications will be given more power, including control of their own budgets, and each board will have its own college of independent experts to review proposals.

Peer review of applications will be based on track record rather than on evidence of how the science might develop in the future, although proposals from early-stage researchers will be judged differently.

Professor Blakemore said the House of Commons science and technology committee's damning report about the council, which was published last March, was based largely on fact. Yet he strongly refuted claims that the council had mismanaged its finances. He said: "The thing that shocked me most about the science and technology report was not the extravagant accusations, but the fact that it did reflect the correspondence from the scientific community."

The MRC is expecting a flood of applications due to pent-up demand when the changes take effect in April. A recent call for brain science proposals prompted 320 applications, though the budget could fund only 20 or so.

Professor Blakemore said: "Expectation management will be an important job.

Part of that is about communication. The community has to accept that there is not an absolutely massive increase in funding to go with this."

He added that the council wanted to get up to a level of funding that it could sustain to avoid the fluctuations of recent years.

Two MRC committees will evaluate the impact of all these changes. Once researchers have worked with the new system, the MRC will begin a series of university workshops to seek feedback, Professor Blakemore said.

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