Treasury commandeers MRC funds

December 21, 2007

How the Medical Research Council's will pay for its contribution to a new £500 million super-laboratory in central London was questioned this week when it was confirmed that the Treasury is to take £92 million from the council's coffers, writes Zoe Corbyn.

Giving evidence before MPs on the Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee this week on plans for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) at St Pancras, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the MRC's chief executive, said the Treasury would take almost half of its Commercial Fund - money earned by the MRC in exploiting its intellectual property.

The money is to be paid into the Government's Consolidated Fund.

The MRC is understood to have previously earmarked some of the £198.9 million fund as part of its contribution towards the capital costs of building the UKCMRI.

Phil Willis, the chair of the select committee, said: "This committee has been told over a number of occasions that this money (the Commercial Fund) is the bedrock on which the MRC is able to put in roughly £250-£300 million to a major project and you are saying that a third of that has just been taken away?"

Sir Leszek replied: "Yes, it is closer to a half."

But the project - which is jointly funded by the MRC, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London - is not in any jeopardy, according to the MRC.

Sir Leszek said the council was in discussions with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Treasury to secure up to £200 million of funding through the Large Facilities Capital Fund to pay a £260 million contribution.

The new centre planned for 2013 is to incorporate the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) based in Mill Hill and Cancer Research UK London Research Institute.

Sir Lesek said it was "impossible" to give assurances to NIMR staff that either all the scientific work currently carried out there or their jobs could be protected.

UK HEALTH RESEARCH COULD LOSE OUT TO CHINA AND INDIA: UUK REPORT

Competition from cheaper research in China and India could threaten UK universities' position in global health research.

The warning comes in a report by Universities UK, which suggests that emerging markets could pose a serious challenge to a sector worth £3 billion a year.

With many pharmaceutical companies conducting drug trials in India, the report says it is probably UK health research's "most challenging time". The UK needs to "be able to attract the best academic staff", it says, "to continue to compete effectively".

The report says biomedical centres of excellence for research will help the UK compete by luring leading researchers. And it says UK universities are still well regarded for their high regulatory standards.

The report calls for closer collaboration between universities and the National Health Service.

John Gill

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