The work of the UK research councils - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Medical Research Council (RCUK 07)


  Further to Mr Willis' letter dated 1 December 2009 in which he raises a number of queries on behalf of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee regarding the MRC's 2008-09 Annual Report, I am pleased to provide you with the following information in response:

1.   The delay in the presentation of the MRC's 2008-09 Annual Report and Accounts

  The MRC's Annual Report and Accounts for 2008-09 was laid before Parliament on 11 November 2009. In presenting the report by the end of November, the MRC did fulfil the requirements of the Science and Technology Act (1965). The Committee will however be aware that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills normally expects that the Research Councils present their reports to Parliament before the summer recess. The MRC was not able to meet this expectation because two issues, detailed on p 66 of the Report, had to be resolved before I could sign the Statement of Internal Control and the accounts could be finalised. One issue related to a number of compromise agreements where the MRC had not sought in advance formal approval of extra-contractual payments in accordance with the terms of the Financial Memorandum with the Department. Retrospective approval was subsequently granted by the Department and by HM Treasury, but the issue has been highlighted as an area of concern in the statement of internal control and the MRC is in the process of commissioning an external review of HR policies, processes and practices in relation to handling capability and redundancy issues.

  The second issue was the investigation of a potential fraud in one of our Units; no direct evidence of fraud was found, but weaknesses in the local purchasing policy were identified which are now being addressed.

2.   Informing government policy

  In general, the MRC uses a number of mechanisms to ensure that our research findings inform government policy where appropriate. In many instances the MRC directly informs relevant Ministers and/or their advisory teams of significant findings eg surrounding the recent swine flu outbreak. For some MRC research units doing research of direct public health relevance, engagement with government is good and there is effective communication in both directions; an example is the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, which is jointly funded by the MRC and the Chief Scientist's Office of the Scottish Executive Department of Health. In addition, the MRC is encouraging its scientists to take part in a new pairing scheme with civil servants as well as the Royal Society's pairing scheme with MPs, in order to help increase awareness of the importance of research evidence and the access they have to MRC to provide impartial advice. The MRC also engages with specific issues raised by government, as well as members from all political parties in the Houses of Parliament and the Devolved Parliament/Assemblies, to provide specific advice and to address questions raised by constituents.


  The MRC is leading a strategy for addiction research and substance misuse in partnership with members of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The strategy covers illicit drugs, alcohol and gambling. Stakeholders, including the Home Office (HO) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), have been consulted about areas of unmet priority need.

  In consultation with stakeholders and the addiction research community, the MRC has identified the following thematic categories as priority areas for research:

    — Cause—aetiology and natural life-course;

    — Harm—biological and social prevalence/incidence data;

    — Alcohol—harm, new treatments, evaluation; and

    — Treatment—new therapies, interventions.

  Grant applications relevant to delivering the strategy will be considered in March 2010, and we have agreed with HO (and other stakeholders) that they will provide comments on how the applications received map onto policy priorities, to inform decision-making; however, scientific considerations will be paramount in decision-making as the aim is to ensure that the highest quality science is funded. The MRC will write to the Chief Scientific Advisor/Head of Science Secretariat at HO so that the relevant policy leads can be informed of the applications received.


  The MRC is a member of the Strategic Board of the CGRPD whose membership includes representatives from key government departments (including HO and MOJ) as well as the UK Research Councils, NIHR, Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). One of the first tasks for the CGRPD was to produce a cross-government drugs research strategy. The MRC's addiction initiative is referenced in this strategy which will be published this year.


  Home Office and MRC have jointly-funded a research project on the systematic assessment of drug harms. The methodology has been developed with the ACMD. A report on the project is expected in the summer of 2010.


    — The MRC has presented the addiction strategy to the ACMD.

    — I will meet a member of ACMD later this year, who is also lead judge for one of the four pilot dedicated drug courts. The aim is sharing information and mutual education.

    — I meet annually with the HO Chief Scientific Advisor.

  In summary, there has been much consultation with HO over the direction of the MRC initiative and the HO will identify applications of particular relevance to policy to inform decision-making. As some of the research is likely to be looking at causes, harms and treatment of drug use, some of the outcomes could have short- to medium-term relevance to Government drug policy.

3.   BIS/Treasury support for translating scientific discovery into products

  Both BIS and the Treasury recognise the importance of the commercialisation of MRC research and the role of MRCT. The MRC and MRCT have been very successful in translating MRC discoveries into commercial products and generating income from this activity; commercial income in 2008-09 was £66.4 million (p 82 of the accounts). We believe it is important that arrangements for handling this income act to incentivise MRC and the scientists we fund to engage in commercialisation activity, and are pleased that BIS and Treasury are supportive of this view. MRCT's expenditure in 2008-09 was £10.9 million. This was funded by royalties which MRCT earns in its own right and management fees and grants from MRC.

  During the period of the current Spending Review, a cap was put on the amount of money the MRC could retain from its commercial activities (as announced on 17 December 2007). The current capping mechanism requires all gross income receipts above the cap to be paid to the Treasury. In practice, however, for every pound of gross income received, the MRC has to pay away around 50 pence as a consequence of royalty share agreements and other collection costs. This means that the more the cap is exceeded the less net income the MRC is able to retain.

  MRC's Council regards this arrangement as a serious disincentive to scientists to deliver a key part of our mission, namely "to advance and disseminate knowledge and technology to improve the quality of life and economic competitiveness of the UK".

  We believe that the best way to incentivise the MRC and the biomedical research community more broadly is to ensure that in the main funds generated from commercialisation are returned to biomedical research. We are working closely with BIS and Treasury to resolve the current issues quickly, and know that they appreciate the importance for MRC's financial planning of resolving ambiguities in the mechanisms for handling commercial income before the next Spending Review.

4.   MRC provision of science communication training

  The MRC takes science communication very seriously, and supporting scientists to communicate their work in a wide variety of ways is an intrinsic part of our mission. The Committee has asked about the form and cost of the training supported by the MRC and whether this training might be provided to all MRC scientists.

  The MRC works with thousands of scientists each year. Around 3,000 researchers are supported by MRC-funded programmes in universities and hospitals and we directly employ more than 4,000 people in the UK and overseas. Our intramural programme alone produced in excess of 1,300 papers last year. With so many scientists and related published research papers, media and public engagement training provision is simply not feasible for every scientist, every year.

  Media and public engagement training is just one of the ways we provide communication support for scientists, but media and public engagement activity is not appropriate in every situation. A significant proportion of the research we do is fundamental science and, although vitally important, it is not necessarily accessible or of interest to a wider public audience. We also know from experience that scientists who receive training without any subsequent opportunity to consolidate their skills (ie with no prospect of their work being the subject of a press release or of attending a public event in the following 3-6 months) very often lose confidence in their ability to represent themselves accurately and are often reluctant to take part in public-facing activities without further additional training. For this reason, we prefer a tailored approach using our finite communication resources where they are most needed and are most effective.

  We commission professional science communication training providers to run workshops for scientists who plan to take part in a public event/s. We usually do this four times a year, and in different locations, to ensure a wide uptake.

  We also work closely in partnership with universities and other institutions, through coaching seminars and workshops for scientists to help build capacity for science communication. We co-fund the Science Media Centre and help to recruit appropriate science spokespeople. We have designed and delivered a variety of communication projects, such as the Max Perutz science writing awards for science communication and regularly participate in science festivals and local community engagement.

  The budget science communication training for 2008-09 was £10,000. The budget for media training 2008-09 was £30,000.

5.   Open access publishing

  The Committee has asked whether there would be benefit in making the MRC's requirement relating to open access publishing retrospective, so that it would cover research resulting in funding before October 2006 and if so how this might be achieved.

  October 2006 was selected as the implementation date for the MRC's Open Access mandate in order to provide researchers with the opportunity to incorporate the likely costs of publishing into their grant proposals from a fixed point. Open Access publishing costs, when they occur, are covered under the Full Economic Cost (FEC) funding model for grant applications from universities and other research institutes, and are included also in budget provisions for researchers working in our own research units and institutes. Biomedical research progresses rapidly and, although older material will still be of relevance, the MRC's priority for implementing Open Access is to make new research available to all as soon as possible in order to speed up delivery of benefits to human health. The MRC is very pleased with the progress that has been made in making the findings of publicly funded research available more rapidly and this is where our funding and efforts have been targeted.

  While there could be benefits in extending the mandate to cover research published before October 2006, there would also be significant costs involved, both for journal fees and in staff time to identify each article, contact the relevant publishers and negotiate deals. Open Access has fundamentally challenged the traditional model of publishing research outputs, and publishers are having to adapt to this new economic model. This has been a particular issue for Learned Societies, which rely heavily on journal subscription income.

  I hope I have been able to address fully the issues raised by the Committee in this response. If you have any further queries please do not hesitate to contact me.

January 2010

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