What's the next step?

May 11, 2001

The research councils have mapped out their strategies for exploring post-genome science. Caroline Davis reveals what they plan to do.

Five months after the government announced that it would make available £110 million for genomics research in the science budget, the research councils have strategies in place for how the money will be spent.

The councils with the highest and lowest allocations (the Medical Research Council, with £53 million, and the Economic and Social Research Council, with £5 million) took the longest to finalise their arrangements. The delay may have been made worse because - unlike the government's two other new cross-council programmes, in e-science and basic technology - there is no central programme for genomics.

Instead, each council has its own budget and is expected to report how it uses its money to the Post-Genome Coordinating Committee, which reports to the director-general of the research councils. Despite this structure, cross-council collaboration on genomics research is still a priority.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is teaming up with the MRC to promote discipline-hopping. To help tenured physical scientists become more familiar with the life sciences, awards of up to £60,000 will be made. The EPSRC is also working with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in its £33 million "Exploiting genomics" programme, which will concentrate on manufacturing technologies.

The EPSRC will spend the rest of its £13 million for genomics research on platform grants of up to £500,000 over five years to provide baseline research in bioinformatics, and on collaboration with process engineering departments that use chemical engineering techniques to manufacture products from genomics research.

The BBSRC is concentrating on two projects that it hopes will develop the frontier between genomics and the physical sciences. "Post-genomic technologies" will create basic technology to help researchers relate genetic information to biological function in genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics and metabolomics. "From cell function to bioprocessing" will bring together biologists with biochemical and chemical engineers. They will look at how cell functions inhibit the manufacture of biological products and what influences the desired properties of these products.

Because the government is keen for genomics work to begin as soon as possible, the council plans to spend most of its money in the first call for proposals, which closed at the end of April. However, larger bids (of £1.5 million and more) can be submitted for the second round if the council is informed by September. The second call will close in November, and winners will be announced in June 2002.

Three BBSRC panels from the agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare communities will assess first-round bids, and successful applicants will be announced in October. Although international collaborations are encouraged, the BBSRC has said it cannot fund the overseas partners.

The Natural Environment Research Council has £6 million to spend on environmental genomics. By the time the first call closed at the end of February, the council had received 150 outline research proposals.

The overall budget for the project will be considerably higher than the £6 million allocated in the spending review. The cash from the review will be topped up with money from the NERC baseline budget. The NERC, which was already planning an environmental genomics programme, sees the money as a welcome addition to its strategy rather than marking a shift in its research schedule.

The MRC, which has been running a post-genomics project since 1998, plans to use its new funds to expand its existing programme. Most of the money will be spent on infrastructure, with only a small proportion available for individual projects, said Mike Davies, who is coordinating the MRC post-genome office. Some £20 million will be put towards the national genetic database. This will gather DNA samples from 500,000 adults in the United Kingdom, and the data generated will be mined to explore the roles of genetic and environmental factors involved in common diseases of middle age such as diabetes, strokes and heart attacks. At least £15 million will be spent on building a centre for the modelling of human diseases, with the focus on using mice as models.

The MRC said it will also set up facilities to complement the third-generation synchrotron to be built at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The facility will be used to study macromolecular structures in greater detail to determine function and develop new therapies.

The council also hopes to strengthen its research into mental health, heart disease and cancer. It is working with the ESRC on projects to see how society benefits from advances in medical knowledge. With other research councils, it is collaborating on technology development, bioinformatics, gene function and economic and social research.

The ESRC has £5 million, which it intends to invest in a Centre for Social Research in Genomics. This multidisciplinary centre will use social science to find out more about the social, psychological, economic, geographical and political implications of genomics. The money will fund it for the first five years.

The ESRC has launched a consultation throughout the academic and user communities to help it decide which programmes to focus on. Researchers have also been invited to apply for funding for such programmes.

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