Strategy risks bio lead, expert says

January 28, 2005

The founding chief executive of the life sciences' research council has said that poor funding decisions have threatened a fundamental area of biology.

Sir Tom Blundell said that his discipline of structural biology - which examines the structure and dynamics of molecules - was at risk because of a lack of funding for infrastructure even though it had been labelled a priority area for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The field is crucial for developing drugs to tackle diseases such as hospital "superbug" MRSA.

Sir Tom, professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University, was chief executive of the BBSRC between 1994 and 1996. He confirmed that he had raised a number of private concerns with the research council about the outcome of a £14 million grant competition to support the field, the Structural Proteomics of Rational Targets, or SPoRT programme.

Sir Tom said that while several leading UK research centres were in need of funding, the BBSRC funded only two projects under SPoRT, including one where he believes the money was spread so thinly across a large Scottish-based consortium that it failed to provide "critical mass".

The Times Higher has found that although a BBSRC review in 2002 recommended that a minimum of three major projects be funded with £30 million, the council spent only £11.5 million of the £14 million earmarked, on just two projects.

The second winning project, also based in Scotland, was already heavily backed by special funding from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

"I have no complaints about either of the grants made," Sir Tom said.

He added that he had never intended to make his concerns public and confirmed that his own bid under the grant competition was rejected.

"The point that I'm making is that it leaves a large number of centres without infrastructure funds," he said.

"We don't have the infrastructure that we've built up over a number of years, and I think we are in danger of losing an area where we have been strongly in the lead internationally."

The BBSRC, responsible for a £300 million a year investment in the life sciences, announced last year that it had £14 million to support large-scale, five-year projects in the field.

In June 2004, the council confirmed that it had allocated a total of Pounds 11.5 million to two projects.

The BBSRC said that the judging panel decided not to make a further major grant, and the remaining money was instead used for smaller projects.

Of the two large grants, £6.8 million went to the Membrane Protein Structure Initiative, a consortium led by Glasgow University. The consortium included groups from Leeds, Oxford and Sheffield universities, and Imperial College London.

The other project to win SPoRT funding was the Scottish Structural Proteomics Facility, based primarily at the universities of Dundee and St Andrews.

This received £4.6 million from the BBSRC, but it had already won Pounds 1.4 million from Shefc's strategic development funding for "national priority needs" a year earlier.

Sir Tom raised no concerns about the prior funding of this project by Shefc. But he said: "I did hope that the SPoRT initiative would be able to fund more than two centres - traditionally five or six have been funded.

"I'm making a general point. A number of groups across the country that have had infrastructure in this area are now dependent on having a large number of small grants, and it's very difficult to get the rather expensive infrastructure."

He said an X-ray machine could cost about £300,000 in capital and then require £15,000 a year for running and maintenance costs, and a magnetic resonance imaging machine could cost "several million".

Nigel Brown, BBSRC director of science and technology, said: "BBSRC has long supported world-class structural biology in the UK. Our £14 million investment in structural proteomics is just one element of this.

"I am confident that the combination of a consortia approach for a few focused centres and our award of individual grants through responsive mode funding will help maintain the strength of the UK's structural biology community, which is also strongly supported by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust."

He said the move to full economic costing of research grants from later this year would allow researchers to receive funding for the true cost of facilities and equipment.

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