Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 34

Submission from the Medical Research Council (MRC)


  This memorandum is submitted by the Medical Research Council and represents our independent views. It does not include, or necessarily reflect the views of, the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI). MRC welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation from House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.[40]

  The MRC does not have a programme of space research. In August 2002, the MRC, jointly with the British National Space Centre (BNSC), held a workshop with the main aim of informing the MRC's research strategy in relation to biomedicine and space (while recognising that research funded by MRC must ultimately address the health needs of the UK population and UK wealth creation).

  At that time, the UK had been a member of the European Space Agency's (ESA) "European Microgravity Research Programme" for a number of years, albeit at a fairly low level, and was represented by the BNSC. The UK had participated in the then ESA microgravity programme, EMIR-2X since September 2000, but this was due to finish in 2003, to be superseded by a new ESA programme called ELIPS (European Life and Physical Sciences utilising the International Space Station).

  The MRC/BNSC workshop therefore had the additional aims to:

    —    Identify if there were unique opportunities afforded by research in space that might prove beneficial to terrestrial health.

    —    Inform MRC's and the other Research Council's position on the value of "microgravity" as a platform/tool for research, and on potential UK participation in the ESA Life and Physical Sciences Programme (ELIPS).

    —    Help assess the competitiveness of the UK in space biomedicine.

    —    Identify how research activities linked to space programmes might be most effectively linked to the non-space scientific community.

    —    Identify the opportunities and benefits of engaging more closely with ESA and NASA over the medium/longer term.

    —    Help prepare for forthcoming MRC bilateral meetings with both NASA and ESA.

  The workshop brought together 30 leading scientists from the UK and overseas to discuss the opportunities presented by space-based research programmes in the area of biomedicine, and the benefits that such programmes might provide for terrestrial health needs. The meeting was structured to allow discussion of the role of space research in four areas of physiology—bone, muscle, cardiovascular and neurophysiology.


  A report from the Workshop was published and is available at:

  The report includes the conclusions reached by an MRC Advisory Group which met privately towards the end of the workshop. These were:

    —    Biomedical research in space is clearly needed to support the programmes of manned space flight. The main benefit of such research is to the health of astronauts, rather than to the health of the terrestrial population.

    —    While the UK has several pockets of excellent research in this area, there is currently a lack of critical mass and co-ordination, while links to the broader biomedical community are weak.

    —    Microgravity provides an interesting tool with which to probe normal human physiology, although its relevance to pathophysiology needs to be more convincing.

    —    Investigations into the loss of bone and muscle mass in conditions of microgravity may further our understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying the turnover of such tissue. However it has yet to be established whether this is a useful model in terms of understanding the processes of ageing.

    —    The studies being performed in space offer some unique possibilities for the area of human physiology. For example, whole organism experiments can be performed on humans to test hypotheses that on earth can only be approached with association studies. However the majority of important questions being posed could be tackled on earth by careful design.

    —    Cardiovascular research represents an area of opportunity for furthering our understanding of basic physiological processes, although space studies do not provide a good model for heart failure and other cardiovascular disease processes.

    —    The area of neurovestibular research offers some possibilities, for example in relation to sensory-motor integration studies and cellular/molecular adaptation, although UK efforts in space research in this area are modest. Furthermore there are increasing terrestrial opportunities offered by virtual reality approaches.

    —    Current studies are generally descriptive, and the knowledge base at present is insufficient to ask the critical questions that microgravity might be able to uniquely answer.

    —    The study population in space research is atypical, since astronauts are a highly selected group of fit and intelligent individuals.

    —    The small numbers of astronauts that can be analysed gives rise to problems of statistical power in space research, and effort should be put into establishing new biostatistical methodology.

    —    Space programmes may have a role for the development of bioinstrumentation, such as miniaturised imaging modalities; however the lack of statistical power in space studies will remain to be a problem.

    —    Due to its greater investment in manned space flight, NASA has a more significant biomedical research programme, and a larger physiological database, than ESA.

    —    Any decision to commit funding towards space research programmes should be taken only once a rigorous cost/benefit analysis has been undertaken.

    —    The UK should establish better links between its biomedical researcher community and those involved in space research (through NASA and ESA). Opportunities exist for improving the design of the experiments performed in space, and UK experts could make valuable contributions in this area.



  In February 2003, following the recommendations of the independent Microgravity Review Panel, headed by Professor Bill Wakeham, RCUK's view was sought on whether the UK should join the ESA ELIPS Programme at the minimum subscription level (at a total cost of around £3.4 million per year, plus the additional costs of funding the research). The MRC provided views based on the outcome of the workshop. The Research Council Chief Executives unanimously concluded that they could not recommend Science Budget investment in the ESA ELIPS Programme. Potential investment in the Programme had been weighed against other competing demands for funding, and it was deemed not to be of sufficiently high scientific priority.

  On 10 May 2004, Lord Sainsbury announced that reluctantly the UK Government would not subscribe to the ESA ELIPS programme, nor fund a national programme of microgravity research at the present time.


  The MRC decided not to be involved in the UK contribution to the preparatory phase of ESA's "Aurora" programme (as announced by Lord Sainsbury on 1 October 2004), for the same reasons, and also because anyway the programme in its preparatory phase was focusing on robotic rather than manned flight.


  The MRC does not attach strategic importance to biomedical research relating to space. However, there are potential opportunities, as discussed at the 2002 workshop, and the MRC would welcome response-mode applications which would be considered in competition in the usual way.

October 2006

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