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December 30, 2010

The MRC begins 2011 in a strong position

It has been a rollercoaster and, at times, highly emotive year for science. Pre-spending fears of savage cuts were briefly substituted by a communal sign of relief after the event. Then the reality sunk in. And now it is about making the best of what we've got.

That's certainly been my sense of the feeling across the medical and health-research community ahead of this week's announcement of the science and research-budget allocations. But then we have perhaps had more time to run through the emotions than other areas of science.


As many people will be aware, the Treasury was unusually forthcoming, positive and explicit about the settlement for the Medical Research Council in October's spending-review announcement. On that day, the Coalition Government not only committed itself to an increase in the MRC's expenditure in real terms but also to £220 million of funding for the UK Central for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI).

Last week's announcement puts more precise figures on the former commitment. They show that the MRC—taking its 2010-2011 budget of £546 million as the baseline—will take a hit next year of about £10 million before rising back to about the baseline figure in 2012-2013 and then rising to £575 million in 2014-2015. That's about a 5 per cent rise on this year as compared to the five other research councils, who will end up with budgets of 3 per cent down on the baseline.

It is perhaps worth adding that the above figures include neither the MRC's administrative budget nor the capital budget, which will reduce from £134 million this year to settle at just over £30 million in 2014-2015. That looks like a massive reduction until you take into account the fact that expenditure has been larger this year than most because it has included funds for the new Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) building in Cambridge, due to open in 2012.

Nonetheless, even the MRC points out that capital funding will fall by 57 per cent on the first year and by similar amounts over the CSR period. This reduction in the capital budget is mirrored across the other research councils and continues to be one of the most worrisome outcomes of the spending review settlement—perhaps the main story of the day.

Few members of the Association of Medical Research Charities or their colleagues across research will be surprised by the rest of the government's accompanying statement about medical and health research.

In fact the overall continuity of approach will be welcomed in the current environment: the Office for the Strategic Co-ordination for Health Research retains its overarching brief; new or strengthened MRC budget lines on stratified medicine, regenerative medicine and on neurodegenerative diseases are good news; the emphasis on collaboration; and the commitment to increase expenditure on translational research to £250 million over the CSR period looks more like an accentuation of what has gone before than a revolution. Nonetheless, on initial reading, I was impressed by the focus and intent of the delivery plan, by the sense of mission and momentum that was perhaps lacking when its strategic plan was produced in 2009.

Beyond the MRC, charities will be pleased to see such a strong instruction in the letter from Science Minister David Willetts to HEFCE that in allocating and reviewing QR funding to universities it should seek to protect 'funding leveraged from external sources such as the charitable and business sectors.' It is the most solid commitment to the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) that we have had from this administration so far.

But...and there is always a but...despite my positive take on the above, there will be worries about what the cuts in other research council budgets will mean in an increasingly multi-disciplinary and collaborative world. And many, including my members, are becoming increasingly nervous about the overall university funding picture and its knock-on effects for research. At present, listening to the arguments can feel a little like standing on the English coast listening to the distant guns of the Western Front knowing that at some point and in some way the damage will reach home. And that feeling will not have been dimmed this week.

In the meantime, it's a case of 'It is what it is, let's get on with it,' that success will be as much down to sound leadership, good partnership and some savvy thinking as to the money itself. Against those benchmarks and given last Monday's announcement, the MRC begins 2011 in a strong position.

Simon Denegri is chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities.

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