Supplementary submission from the Medical
Research Council (MRC)
PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART
1. The Medical Research Council (MRC) contributed
to the RCUK response to the original call for written evidence
to this Inquiry; this was submitted in January 2009.
2. We welcome the opportunity to provide further
evidence relating to Lord Drayson's recent proposals on strategic
science funding as, for example, outlined during his speech to
the Foundation for Science and Technology on 4 February 2009.
3. The main question posed by the Minister is:
"Has the time come for the UKas part of a clear economic
strategyto make choices about the balance of investment
in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK
has clear competitive advantage?" Much will depend on how
"area" is interpreted. Also we note that the question
refers to competitive advantage, but it is not clear whether this
means scientifically or economically competitive.
4. The Committee has asked for responses
to four specific questions:
(i) What form a debate or consultation about
the question should take and who should lead it?
5. The debate should be led by Government,
specifically DIUS, because it is the Science and Innovation Minister
who has posed the question and is best placed to consult in a
way that would provide the most appropriate evidence to answer
it. In the first instance, the consultation should be aimed primarily
at organisations (eg the Research Councils, Funding Councils,
UUK, Academies), rather than individuals, as the latter is more
likely to lead to a lot of special pleading that would be difficult
to analyse and interpret. The consultation should lead to some
specific proposals or options that might then be used as the basis
for a wider public debate. The process should be as transparent
(ii) Whether such a policy is desirable or
6. The case for such a policy becomes stronger,
the smaller the resources available for research. Despite the
welcome increase in research funding in the last 12 years,
the science and research budget is still insufficient to fund
all internationally competitive research proposals. In times of
relative plenty, researchers will carry out research to discover
and translate new knowledge and much of this will be in areas
in which the UK has clear competitive advantage.
7. Choices have to be made on the apportioning
of funding. There are two main levels at which this happens currently.
The first is in DIUS (in the case of the MRC advised by OSCHR)
in deciding how the science and research budget is divided between
the Research Councils (and others); the second is in the Research
Councils in deciding which projects to support with the funds
available. Regarding the first, there is no perfect way of deciding
how to divide the science and research budget; the MRC is content
with the present process which allows the Research Councils to
submit proposals to DIUS and for these to be discussed. Regarding
the second, the Secretary of State has indicated his support for
the Haldane Principle
(April 2008), specifically that:
Researchers are best placed to determine
The government's role is to set the
over-arching strategy; and
The research councils are "guardians
of the independence of science".
8. If "competitive advantage"
means scientifically competitive, then we believe that the Research
Councils already do this in supporting excellence though peer
review. There is good evidence through international comparisons
that this is successful.
9. If "competitive advantage"
means economically competitive, then the MRC believe that it is
important to maintain economic competitiveness. Research funding
(public, charity and private) is one way to help achieve this
goal. The MRC recognises the importance of, and engages with,
the UK pharmaceutical, biotechnology and healthcare industries
as significant contributors to the UK's economic and science base
as well as the health of its population. However, any policy would
need to recognise that the UK needs to grow new strengths as well
as building on existing ones. The eggs should be distributed to
several baskets, but we believe there is a case, at least in the
short-term if funding is especially tight, that of necessity the
number of baskets should be reduced.
10. The policy could be implemented either
though DIUS apportioning the science and research budget differently,
or by the Research Councils focusing on particular areas. Both
may be necessary. We favour an enhanced role for the Research
Councils as they already do the latter through strategic and thematic
approaches (including cross-Council programmes). This could be
expanded in the way that the MRC has for example through MRC Technology
(MRCT) and translational research initiatives, including the "Developmental
Pathway Funding Scheme".
However, all Research Councils recognise the importance of protecting
fundamental "blue skies" research that produces the
discoveries on which longer-term future economic and social gain
(iii) What the potential implications of such
a policy are for UK science and engineering, higher education,
industry and the economy as a whole?
11. The implications would depend on the
extent of the change and the speed at which it was implemented.
This question has been addressed in paragraph 9 above. The
policy should be implemented in ways that would not damage areas
such that they could not recover; nor that would create short-term
hardship to institutions or individuals that did not allow them
to adapt. Damage that can happen quickly may take decades to recover
(iv) Were such a policy pursued, which research
sectors are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to
12. One sector likely to benefit is medical
and health research, in particular the MRC and NIHR. The reasons
are the quality of the research and its importance to the UK economy.
The importance of medical research to the UK was recognised in
the 'Cooksey Review' (2006) which
"The UK Health Research system has
many strengths. It has a long tradition of producing excellent
basic science, with the MRC funding 27 Nobel Prize winners
since its establishment in 1913. The quality of the health research
base, combined with a national health service, creates a major
selling point that attracts R&D investment from the pharmaceutical
and biotechnology industries, which form a major part of the UK
knowledge economy. And
The quality of the health research base,
combined with a national health service, creates a unique selling
point that attracts R&D investment from the pharmaceutical,
devices and biotechnology industries. These industries form a
major part of our knowledge economy. They are prime investors
in R&D. The pharmaceutical industry alone accounts for 25%
of UK business investment in R&D and it is a significant employer
of highly-skilled staff. Given the sector's contribution to the
UK economy, the healthcare industries are a key driver of wider
13. There is good evidence that medical
research reaps economic and social benefits. A recent study,
for example, has estimated the value of health gains arising from
research funded by public and charitable research organisations
in two specific research areas (cardiovascular disease and mental
health). The health gain, net of the incremental cost of delivering
treatments through the NHS, between 1985 and 2005, specifically
from interventions arising from cardiovascular disease research
alone, totalled £53 billion.
15. The MRC has a strong track record in
commercialising the output from its research (through MRCT). Licensing
income receipts from all sources reached £85.4 million
during 2008-09. This brings the total cash generated from MRC
intellectual property since 1998 to £384 million.
16. Since the establishment of OSCHR and
the confirmation of the Science Budget allocations for 2008-09
to 2010-11, the MRC and NIHR have invested heavily in translational
research and training, in particular to accelerate the translation
of basic research into health gain and products. Details are in
the OSCHR Chairman's First Progress Report,
and also on the MRC website.
We believe it important that this level of investment is increased
to benefit the UK scientifically and economically.
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