Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex 5

Memorandum from the Medical Research Council (MRC)


A:  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments

  1.  The RAE is designed to build on strengths which, as a general policy, is one that the MRC strongly supports. However, from the biomedical sciences perspective, the process leads to significant losers in certain key areas. While it is of course open to Universities to allocate their QR funding as they see fit, for example to build up disciplines or subjects that have not been rated at the highest levels, this often does not happen, no doubt for internal political and financial reasons. The current RAE process disadvantages Departments whose research is likely to have most direct impact on policy and practice, particularly in the area of health: health services research (HSR) and the professions allied to medicine (PAMs). Universities do not invest in these areas as they know that it is unlikely to get them any money via RAE, so they go for much "safer" things such as genetics and stem cells. This has meant that in many medical schools clinicians have been replaced by basic scientists in key positions.

  2.  Such research is usually multidisciplinary, which brings added disadvantages in the way the assessment is applied. Also, the RAE goes against collaboration, as it places greatest weight on the grants and publications of individuals in a single institute. There is not only not a great deal of incentive for people to work across universities in a spirit of collaboration, there is actually a disincentive as the host universities regard it as wasting time when they should be getting grants and papers in for them, not other institutions. In addition, the relevant departments are often newer ones, and/or in new medical schools, and/or in the less research-intensive universities. If such departments are rated at 4 or below in the RAE, it is difficult for them to receive the funding they need to meet the country's knowledge needs and to produce a research-informed workforce.

  3.  In relation to these, and possibly similar, areas a major problem with the RAE is that it scores people and departments on whether they are of international standing—which usually means publishing in high impact international journals. But of course lots of HSR should be judged not in terms of international science, but of local relevance. Thus, for example, very useful (for the NHS) research on referral patterns in British general practice can never expect to get into the New England Journal of Medicine but, at best, might appear in the British Journal of General Practice which many (including RAE panels) would regard as a "national" journal. Thus almost by definition, much research in primary care in the UK cannot be international: so universities simply close down these Departments (witness the dire straits of primary care departments/research in London). In part, this a problem of new departments with little critical mass and research tradition (see above), but it is also partly inherent in the work they do (and should be doing). Whilst the Select Committee may be more interested in (say) chemistry than HSR, we would like to use this opportunity to make the point that the RAE has been harmful to much applied health research where the target, mainly of necessity, has been a "local" problem.

  4.  On a couple of more general points:

    (i)  The timeframe of the RAE makes it difficult for Universities to plan long-term; it may take several years for an activity to lead to outputs that would receive the highest ratings—for example, establishment of tissue banks, data archives, or population cohorts may take more than one RAE cycle to start to deliver—and this will affect viability.

    (ii)  The RAE does not currently distinguish between departments with upward trajectories (which should be deserving of more support) and those with static or downward trajectories (which may not). Again, while in theory this is in the hands of individual universities to address, in practice they may not be well placed to.

B:  The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend

  5.  The MRC supports the concentration of research in a small number of university departments. This becomes increasingly important with the tightening of funding. In order to deliver, departments must have a critical mass. Also, multi-disciplinary research usually requires a concentration of expertise. Nevertheless, not all research-intensive universities can be excellent at everything, and it is important that the system allow for, and encourages, pockets of expertise elsewhere.

C:  The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula

  6.  No comment.

D:  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments

  7.  It is difficult to define an "optimal balance". As stated in the comments above, the MRC supports the concentration of research in a small number of university departments. This will mean that the balance in the research-intensive universities will be (relatively) weighted in favour of research. Nevertheless, we also believe that the conduct of research within a department will improve the quality of the teaching. For example, it will help to attract higher quality staff (though the best researchers are not necessarily the best teachers) and will make the teaching environment more research-aware and the teaching itself more up to date with recent findings. Certainly research students (Masters and beyond) need to be taught in a department in which a substantial volume of research is conducted.

E:  The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research

  8.  Regional capacity per se is generally not a major concern to MRC. We will fund the best science wherever it is. However, for knowledge transfer to SMEs, there is likely to be benefit in close proximity between the SMEs and the researchers. We see this mainly as an issue for individual universities and the RDAs/DAs. Also, patients benefit if the hospital they attend is a teaching hospital (ie with a medical school), which often means they are also tertiary referral centres. Thus there is a case for medical schools not to be too closely concentrated. Indeed it has been Government policy for many years to match the location of medical schools to patient populations, thereby helping to reduce (geographical) inequalities in health.

F:  The extent to which the Government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of strategic national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose

  9.  As a matter of principle, we support the independence of the Funding Councils from Government Departments. Government should be cautious in believing it might be better able to judge this issue than the Funding Councils and the Universities themselves. However, we believe the Funding Councils, together with UUK, do have a role in taking a strategic and coordinated approach to the continued provision of subjects of strategic national or regional importance; this should not be left to the individual Universities to decide on their own. However, this is not a simple matter. Universities must have the freedom to re-shape their Departments or other internal structures to meet national needs and to respond to developments in the science. It is not simply a matter of keeping say Chemistry Departments as they are; the types of chemist needed in 10-15 years' time may be very different from those needed now. This requires a long-term view of what national needs will be in the future and how the markets for graduates will develop. For example, the country's "need" for phycisists would not be met if all physics graduates found employment in the city. All this leads to the conclusion that the Funding Councils should use their financial powers to achieve the strategic goals, and that not all funding should be formulaic.


  10.  Biomedical disciplines have clearly benefited from the overall increase in investment in life sciences research, and life sciences have not suffered the drop in numbers of students at undergraduate level experienced in mathematics and the physical sciences. However, there are particular areas of the academic base, discussed in detail below, which give cause for concern. Weaknesses and the shortage of research capacity in these areas must be addressed if investments in scientific research are to deliver benefits for health, healthcare and the economy.


  11.  In vivo experiments using animal model systems are required to build on past investment in genomics research and develop a full understanding of the function of genes. Progress in drug discovery and development also requires in vivo work to test the rationale and safety of new therapeutic approaches. The reductionist focus of biological research in recent years, combined with the activities of animal rights activists and the increasing costs of animal work has led to a significant decline in the numbers of people experienced in, and able to teach, whole animal work. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) identified a lack of graduates or PhDs with experience of in vivo work as the most crucial skills gap experienced by their members. ABPI has found that in 2004 only eight UK academic departments provide in vivo education at undergraduate level, and that 30% of all academics qualified to teach in vivo work will retire within the next five years. Concern is so great that a consortium of pharmaceutical companies has set up a fund to support in vivo research and training, and is looking for partnership with Research Councils (MRC and BBSRC), charities and HEIs to address this problem, and it is important that RCs are able to support this initiative.


  12.  Several recent reports[38] have identified the need to strengthen clinical research capacity in the UK, both to ensure that benefits of the explosion of knowledge of basic disease mechanisms can be translated into benefits for health and the National Health Service, and also to ensure the UK remains an attractive location for the pharmaceutical industry to invest in R&D. This has led to the establishment of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration and the commitment of significant additional funding via DH for clinical research infrastructure. The ability to deliver clinical benefits based on the basic science research MRC has funded is threatened by a shortage of experienced clinical and translational researchers and a lack of recruitment of young doctors, dentists and other clinically qualified staff into a research career. A 2003 survey[39] of UK Medical and Dental Schools showed that since 2000 there has been a 30% decline in the number of clinical lecturers in Medicine and Dentistry in and a 17% loss in the overall number of clinical researchers. Many clinical academic posts remain unfilled at a time when the teaching burden in medicine and dentistry is set to rise significantly (eg a projected increase of 40% in the number of medical students). Shortages of academic trainees are particularly acute in certain disciplines, for example pathology, obstetrics and gynaecology, dentistry and public health medicine (see below). A recent report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health[40] also highlighted a shortage of research capacity in paediatric pharmacology, which maps onto a UK Clinical Research Collaboration priority area. These capacity problems require concerted action from the Royal Colleges, the Department of Health, HEIs and the major funding bodies in medical research to address issues of career structure and other barriers to clinical research careers. MRC is actively involved in various stakeholder groups trying to find a solution to these issues, and additional funding for training and capacity development in clinical and translational research will be required. MRC proposed various initiatives in our SR2004 clinical research bid, including the development of a cadre of "research translators" with new skill mixes.


  13.  The Wanless report[41] identifies the weakness of the evidence base on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of public health interventions as a major constraint to further progress in improving public health and the effectiveness of the NHS. A DH survey in 2001[42] concluded that, although research capacity in this area had increased, there was still a lack of expertise in statistics, epidemiology, social sciences and health economics. The CHMS report shows that public health medicine has been particularly badly affected by the recent decline in clinical academic staff, with a 32% decline overall and a 59% decline in clinical lecturers between 2000 and 2003. A recent DH committee reported a significant shortage of health economists, estimating an unmet demand of at least 50. The weakness in public health research is due in part to its low status in the medical and research community (and in the RAE) and the lack of commercial or financial rewards from this type of research, which means that the majority of investment has to come from public funds. MRC has had a major initiative to increase investment in "Health of the Public" research since 1998 and has been running an earmarked fellowship scheme jointly with DH to help increase research workforce capacity for some time, but further action is undoubtedly required.


  14.  MRC endorses the point made in the EPSRC annex that progress in medical sciences depends on a strong research base in the physical sciences. There is a particular need for people trained to a high level in mathematics and physics to apply their skills to medical research questions, in areas such as mathematical modelling, structural studies, imaging and informatics. A strong research base in chemistry is also necessary for sustaining progress in medical research, not only to underpin development of new therapeutic and diagnostic agents but also for the design of new molecules used as research tools for manipulating biological systems. MRC is therefore also concerned about the sustainability of the research base in physics, chemistry and mathematics.

38   Strengthening Clinical Research, Academy of Medical Sciences, Oct 2003. Bioscience 2015: Improving National Health, Increasing National Wealth. Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team (BIGT) 2004. Back

39   Clinical Academic Staffing Levels in UK Medical and Dental Schools, Council of Heads of Medical Schools and the Council of Deans of Dental Schools, May 2004. Back

40   "Safer and Better Medicines for Children-Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health; May 2004". Back

41   Securing Good Health for the Whole Population, 2004. Back

42   National Academic Public Health R& D Capacity Survey for England 2000/01 J.Weeden et alBack

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Prepared 11 April 2005