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:
Causeaetiology and natural life-course;
Harmbiological and social prevalence/incidence
Alcoholharm, new treatments, evaluation;
Treatmentnew 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
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
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
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
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
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 www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC006092
and regularly participate in science festivals and local community
The budget science communication training for
2008-09 was £10,000. The budget for media training 2008-09
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.