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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 25 March, 2003, 00:24 GMT
MPs lambast top research body
Britain's largest public funder of medical research has been badly financially managed, according to an investigation by MPs.

Lab work
MRC has an international reputation
In a report published on Tuesday, the Commons Science and Technology Committee says the Medical Research Council (MRC) is guilty of poor planning that has left it unable to fund important areas of research.

The MRC is world renowned for the high quality of its science.

But the report says that its scientists are being let down by its administrators at head office.

Something has gone badly wrong at the MRC
Dr Ian Gibson
MPs say they have evidence of poor financial management and poor planning, with too many funds committed over long periods leading to large numbers of top quality grant proposals being turned down.

They also accuse the MRC of introducing misguided strategies for its research support that have discriminated against young researchers and some disciplines.

Dr Ian Gibson, committee chairman, said: "Something has gone badly wrong at the MRC which has left Britain's best medical research groups starved of funds.

"Our report shows why scrutiny of British science is so badly needed".

The report draws attention to the UK Biobank project set up to collect and store the genetic details of 500,000 people in a central pool.

MPs say the initiative, funded by a 45m grant from the MRC, was established without the full confidence of the public and the research community.

Among the critics was Sir Alec Jeffries - the founding father of DNA fingerprinting - who expressed concern that the project would drain resources.

MPs described the project as a top-down initiative, the merits of which were not properly balanced against other potential funding options.

MRC response

The MRC says that the MPs have failed to understand a strategy that plans for the long term which may prove unpopular in the short term.

A spokesman said: "The report does not give adequate recognition to the fact that our mission is to promote medical research with a view to improving human health.

"This involves planning long-term and funding research on a long-term basis and we consider that this approach is in the national interest.

"We do not accept the committee's criticisms of our planning process."

The spokesman said that for many years the MRC was criticised for funding research in molecular biology because people questioned its relevance to health.

The subsequent mapping of the human genome has demonstrated the importance of that investment, he said.

"A similar issue arises with UK Biobank today. We strongly refute the committee's suggestion that UK Biobank is a 'politically-driven project'.

"It is being established to use the information generated by the human genome project to improve the health of the public and meet the research needs of the scientific community in their efforts to develop better healthcare."

However, Peter Mitchell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, backed the MPs' conclusions.

He said: "The MRC has not been open or frank about its financial difficulties.

"Last year all MRC Units faced across the board cuts of 5%, despite increases in government grants.

"The MRC Virology Unit in Glasgow suffered an arbitrary 300,000 cut in its budget, even though it received the highest possible rating in its peer review.

"As a result, experienced scientists now face redundancy and long-term research programmes will be cut. Decisions are taken in secret and no explanations provided to staff or their unions."


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