Submission from the Medical Research Council
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
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2000, but this was due to finish in 2003, to be superseded by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
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
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 physiologybone,
muscle, cardiovascular and neurophysiology.
THE MRC/BNSC WORKSHOP
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
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
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
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.
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