MRC rethinks research

November 1, 1996

The Medical Research Council is planning to rethink its clinical research in response to changes in research and development in the National Health Service.

The MRC is re-evaluating its involvement in clinical research and details of the new approach will emerge early next year. But it stresses that clinical research has not been singled out for cutting.

A spokesman said: "The fact that there may be some refocusing does not mean that there will necessarily be any cuts or closures at all".

In 1994/95 the council, which directly employs 3,400 scientists, spent around Pounds 100 million on clinical research, a third of its income.

The MRC has just appointed John Pattison, chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, to the part-time role of senior medical adviser. Professor Pattison, based at University College London's medical school, will advise the council's new chief executive George Radda on the development of council policy on clinical research. But he will not be involved in assessing individual funding proposals.

Other policy initiatives being considered in the wake of 60-year-old Professor Radda's appointment include the launch of a wide-ranging debate on the MRC's involvement in behavioural genetics, a controversial area of research.

A programme has been set in motion that the council hopes will lead to a scientific and ethical framework for possible research in the area.

The council says that the availability of new genetic techniques have created research opportunities but that it is "aware of public and media concern about this type of research and wants to proceed responsibly".

In January the council decided against funding Robert Plomin's work at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, aimed at detecting genes that contribute to language impairment and associated non-language learning difficulties and behavioural problems.

Although the decision was widely thought to be an indication of the MRC's sensitivity to such research, the MRC says that its assessment board raised a number of questions about the timeliness, design and cost-effectiveness of Professor Plomin's proposals.

As a first step towards encouraging a debate on behavioural genetics, the council plans to hold a workshop this autumn to get an overview of the science and future potential research.

The outcome of the workshop will inform subsequent ethical discussion in the early part of the new year, when the MRC intends to consult widely.

"This whole process will set a context in which to consider Robert Plomin's proposals and other future applications for funding," it says.

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