No. 31 of Session 2002-03, dated 4 June 2003
Government responds to MRC Report
The Government today published its response to the Committee's report on the Work of the medical research Council. The Committee has responded as follows:
In a robust response, the Government has attempted to defend its Research Council and the Committee welcomes its points of clarification. Nevertheless, the Government has failed to respond adequately to the Report's main contentions.
The Committee plans to take up these issues with the MRC's incoming Chief Executive Professor Colin Blakemore later in the year, as part of an introductory hearing.
The MRC overcommitted itself to long-term funding which resulted in a substantial drop in its funds for new grants, despite significant increases in its overall funding. The Government acknowledges that "some areas of financial and management and planning could be improved" but it rejects the charge of financial mismanagement, hiding behind auditors' jargon. The MRC has spent its funds in a way that was detrimental to medical research, whatever language the Government uses to describe this.
The MRC provided very different reasons - to the Committee in writing and orally and to the media - for its financial problems. This cannot be described as supporting or clarifying earlier remarks. It was deliberately misleading.
The MRC has introduced misguided funding mechanisms, principally the Cooperative Grant Scheme, the effects of which have been compounded by the lack of new funding. The Committee welcomes the MRC's review of the scheme in the expectation that significant changes will follow.
Chairman of the Committee, Dr Ian Gibson said: "The weakness of the Government's response shows just how bad things have got at the MRC. The MRC needs an overhaul and its new Chief Executive must change its culture. Given the MRC's current enthusiasm for relocation, perhaps a start would be to move its headquarters to Swindon where the other Research Councils are based".
The Government implies that the Committee's conclusions were based on a few complaints it received. These were balanced by the evidence presented by the MRC, in writing and orally, and on its publications and website. In support it quotes, anonymously, from letters it has received. The contrast between the numerous letters received by the Committee from senior medical scientists is striking. These included the following comments:
"Current MRC funding priorities are distorted and are compromising UK science in biomedical research. The lack of research funds in 2002 has had a major impact on UK science, and the grievances in the UK biomedical sector are well founded."
Professor Nigel Scrutton, University of Leicester
"As an active researcher within the MRC's remit, I strongly support the committee's conclusions concerning mismanagement. The move towards a small number of big grants, and away from a larger number of small grants, has had serious negative repercussions for the research community, has stifled innovation, and has led to much top-class research becoming unfundable."
"I have read with great interest the report of your Select Committee into the MRC, and I wish to congratulate you on it. I have also read the MRC's public rebuttal and find it extremely disappointing. There is no doubt such a serious and thorough review deserved a more considered response."
Professor Andrew Leigh Brown, University of Edinburgh
"From my experience of the medical research community and as an employee of the MRC, I feel that your report accurately represents views widely held for some time by a great many of those with an informed view of the way in which the MRC conducts its business. Your recommendations, although highly critical in places, offer a real opportunity for initiating sweeping improvements to the benefit of all."
"I wanted to write to congratulate you on your committee's report on the working of the MRC and to say that the criticisms made in the report accord closely with my own and my colleagues' experience."
Dr Christopher Martyn, MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton
"I would like to congratulate you and your committee on the report into the MRC. I agree with you that for the past few years it has totally neglected its duty to be open with the scientific community, the media, and the public at large
staff at headquarters are far more interested in keeping their political masters happy than caring for the scientists they support. There is a widespread perception that scientists are there to serve the head office rather than the other way round."
Mary Rice, Former Head of Public Communication, MRC
"The Select Committee's observations are well made and appear objective. It would be reassuring to think that the MRC will take some of the suggestions on board to ensure the future development of Bio-medical research."
Dr Vincent O'Connor, University of Southampton
"May I congratulate the committee on an absolutely excellent and perceptive report. Thank goodness that now at last the Cooperative Group Grants Scheme must be on its way out."
For further information, please ring the Committee staff on 020 7219 2793/4, or refer to the Committee Office Information Line on 020 7219 2033.
Previous press notices and publications are available on our website : www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/science_and_technology_committee.cfm
Notes for Editors
Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Committee is empowered to examine the 'expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies'. The Committee was appointed on 12 November 2001.
The Science and Technology Committee published The Work of the Medical Research Council on 25 March 2003, HC132. This followed an oral evidence session with Professor Sir George Radda and Mrs Jane Lee on 4 December 2002.
The Department of Trade and Industry published its response to the Science and Technology's Report on the Work of the Medical Research Council as Cm 5843 on 4 June 2003.