Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 60

Supplementary submission from the Medical Research Council (MRC)



  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.[192]

3.  The main question posed by the Minister is: "Has the time come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to 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 as possible.

(ii)  Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary?

  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[193] (April 2008), specifically that:

    — Researchers are best placed to determine detailed priorities;

    — 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.[194]

  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".[195] 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 depends.

(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 from.

(iv)  Were such a policy pursued, which research sectors are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to lose

  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)[196] which found that:

    — "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 productivity….".

  13.  There is good evidence that medical research reaps economic and social benefits. A recent study,[197] 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,[198] and also on the MRC website.[199] We believe it important that this level of investment is increased to benefit the UK scientifically and economically.

April 2009

192   www.dius.gov.uk/news_and_speeches/speeches/lord_drayson/fst.aspx Back

193   www.dius.gov.uk/news_and_speeches/speeches/john_denham/science_funding  Back

194   www.dius.gov.uk/publications/IntComparativePerformanceUKResearch.pdf Back

195   www.mrc.ac.uk/Ourresearch/Boardpanelsgroups/TRG/TranslationResearch/MRC005473  Back

196   www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/pbr06_cooksey_final_report_636.pdf  Back

197   www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC005237 Back

198   www.nihr.ac.uk/files/pdfs/OSCHR_Progress_Report_18.11.08.pdf  Back

199   www.mrc.ac.uk/Ourresearch/Boardpanelsgroups/TRG/TranslationResearch/MRC005473  Back

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