War of letters on MRC

June 13, 2003

The Commons Science and Technology Committee was drawn into a public squabble with the Department of Trade and Industry last week over the committee's damning report on the Medical Research Council.

In its official response to the committee's report, in which the DTI presented a robust defence of the research council, the department took the unusual step of publishing extracts of letters from leading academics rebutting many of the committee's criticisms about the MRC.

One institute is quoted as saying: "This university shares the concern, widespread among members of the academic community, about the way in which the report misrepresents the facts about the MRC's track record."

This approach infuriated the committee, which then responded by publishing its own list of letters defending its attack on the council. As an additional snub, the committee noted that the DTI's letters were all anonymous, and it pointedly named most of the senior medical academics it quotes.

Mary Rice, the former head of public communication at the MRC, says in her letter of support to the committee: "I agree with you that for the past few years (the MRC) has totally neglected its duty to be open with the scientific community, the media and the public at large."

Central to the committee's report were accusations that the council had mismanaged its funds and that it was starving current research projects of funds. The government has rebutted these claims, insisting there had been no financial mismanagement.

The DTI response says: "A short-term planned underspend for a particular year may... be the best way of smoothing the flow of research funds."

The committee dismissed this as "auditor's jargon". In a statement issued after the DTI's official response, a committee spokesman says: "The MRC has spent its funds in a way that was detrimental to medical research, whatever language the government uses to describe this."

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