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House of Lords

Tuesday, 19th March 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Sheffield.

MRC: Alpha-Rated Projects

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with a probable 70 per cent. rejection rate by the Medical Research Council in 1996-97 of alpha-rated projects.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, the rejection rate illustrates not least the growing number of high quality applications to the Medical Research Council. Its budget increased by more than 30 per cent. in real terms during the past 10 years; but, like all organisations, the MRC must live within its means.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that the Government will bear in mind the fact that alpha ratings are not easily won and that to discard so large a proportion is perhaps a short-term view and is turning our backs on the future. Will my noble friend ask his colleagues in the Treasury in particular, who are chiefly responsible, to look at the matter again?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, in the world of medical research we would wish to avoid any short-term approach. However, I believe that £282 million is a substantial sum to support that valuable research. Of course, it is not the only source of funding for medical research. However, I appreciate what my noble friend said; and no doubt others heard what he said, too.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, would not the MRC and the applicants save money if the MRC were to adopt the filtration and screening practice that is followed by the Wellcome Trust, which now funds more research than the MRC? Secondly, does not the turning down of such a high proportion of alpha-rated projects suggest that perhaps the balance has swung too far away from the support of basic research towards applied research which, in the end, depends on the basic research for which this country historically has a successful record?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I can draw no conclusion from the rejection rate about whether there has been a shift away from basic research. It might well be possible for the MRC to reconsider how it screens, checks or filters out applications. However, given the importance of the Haldane principle, to which we still have adherence, it would be risky for the Government to set out how they believe a better filtering system might be introduced.

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The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, is not the rating highly subjective? Does the Minister agree that all the MRC has to do is to invent a new rating called alpha double plus for those who succeed and then we are all home and dry?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I understand that within the scientific world there is always suspicion about the subjective character of such ratings. It is not for me to suggest the rating approach that the MRC ought to adopt. I readily accept, as I did in answer to my noble friend, that a large number of worthwhile projects do not receive funding from the MRC. We have attractively a growing number of high quality research projects. What should not be underestimated are the other sources of funding which are available.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, is it not the case that many of the high-rated projects which the MRC would wish to fund if it had the money available are being carried out in collaboration or partnership with some of the research charities, the universities and the NHS? It is true that the Association of Medical Research Charities is producing more money for medical research than does the MRC. However, is it not the case that the recent announcement of a 30 per cent. cutback on capital funding for the universities will seriously prejudice some of those projects with detriment to the long-term future of UK medical research?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, although it is not within the responsibility of my department, I have received a number of representations to the effect that that change will impact on the money provided through the DTI to the MRC. I understand that a number of organisations are looking at the matter, as are the vice-chancellors, to see how to ensure that items such as laboratory equipment in particular should not suffer from the change. The noble Lord is right because my figures indicate that while the MRC will be spending about £282 million in the coming year, charities, the Wellcome Trust and other bodies will be spending about £350 million; and more than £400 million is being spent on research-related activity within the NHS.

Earl Jellicoe: My Lords, I must declare an interest as a former chairman of the Medical Research Council, and I must also confess a deep concern about the matter. Does my noble and learned friend agree that despite the inflow of funding from charities, which is most welcome, if the rejection trend persists, there is a real danger that there will be an erosion of our once dominant position in the field of basic medical research? Does my noble friend further agree that it is deeply disappointing for some of the brightest and youngest minds working in the field to see top-class applications rejected?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I understand that within the alpha-rating there are three sub-classifications and that all those projects which achieve an alpha-plus rating are funded by the MRC. As I have indicated, over the past 10 years there has been an increase of something like 30 per cent. in real terms. That is important. But I certainly share the

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concern of my noble friend that those who are brightest and best in the world of medical research should not be put off. However, once again I point to what I see as being very valuable alternative sources of funding, and I believe that those sources are extremely rigorous in their selection of the best.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, did I correctly understand the Minister to say that out of the 70 per cent. rejection rate, he cannot tell us which percentage relates to pure research and which percentage relates to applied research? He also referred to the amount of money put in by industry for applied research. In view of the enormous sums of money which the pharmaceutical industry has devoted to applied research, would it not be better for the Medical Research Council to concentrate on pure research?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I understand that it does concentrate in large measure on pure research. I shall try to ascertain the figure if there is a division between the two. But I certainly recognise the desirability to focus on pure research. Again I emphasise that there would be real concern if the department of which I am a Minister sought to lay down to the MRC, in contradiction of the Haldane principle, which research it should support and which it should not. I did not mention the amount of funding provided by industry which, in applied fashion, I understand amounted to something like £1.6 billion some two years ago.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, regarding the classification and the importance of projects which are currently being rejected, is it not true that certainly in 1995-96, some alpha-plus rated projects were rejected, as were almost all of the alpha-rated projects? Is it not a matter of grave concern that in an area which has been so spectacularly successful in the past, we should now neglect for short-term savings long-term investment in the future scientific base of this country?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, as I have indicated already, we have increased funding in real terms by some 30 per cent. The noble Baroness should realise that there is an increasing number of applications. I certainly understood that all the alpha-plus projects had been approved; but if I have been misled on that, I shall write to the noble Baroness to correct that understanding.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I am rather lost with all this highfalutin stuff. Does the Minister agree that the wording of the Question asked by his noble friend refers to whether HMG are satisfied, which is capable of a yes or no answer? Is he aware that I have been listening to him for 10 minutes and he has not yet been able to answer yes or no? It is a very simple Question. Are Her Majesty's Government satisfied about this state of affairs?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I have to look at the amount of money that we have spent. There has been an increase of something like 30 per cent. in real terms. If the noble Lord wishes to indicate that he would

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agree to increase it by the smallest percentage point, I have no doubt that your Lordships would be very pleased to hear that.

Lord Peston: My Lords, one of the characteristics of your Lordships' House is that I am supposed to ask the questions and the noble and learned Lord opposite is supposed to answer them. I know that that is only a temporary arrangement, but I feel that the Minister should make some effort to answer his own noble friend's Question. It is not my job to do that. I have a view; but at the moment, that is not my job.

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