Medical Research Council
The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a national organisation funded by UK taxpayers. Its business is medical research aimed at improving human health. The chairman of MRC between 1998 and 2006 was Sir Anthony Cleaver, who was replaced by Sir John Chisholm previously the executive chairman of QinetiQ, now non-executive chairman. It is perhaps worth noting that the former chairman, Anthony Cleaver is on the board of Lockheed Martin, therefore since 1998 the last two chairmen of the MRC both have had involvement with arms companies. Both men were appointed to the post of chair by the then Science Minister Lord David Sainsbury.
MRC Seriously Criticised
In 2003 The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report highly critical of MRC's performance under the leadership of Sir Anthony Cleaver. The report focused on the use of public money to fund scientific research organisations. In general the committee found that most research organisations used their government funding well and that the government should continue to support their work and use their expertise more in policy development. The committee chair was Dr Ian Gibson, who, prior to becoming an MP, was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia.
When it came to the MRC many criticisms were made such as poor financial management and planning, so poor in fact that research proposals submitted, even when they achieved the highest grade in peer reviews, could not be funded. The then MRC’s chief executive, Sir George Radda told the committee ‘with hindsight we should have had more foresight’.
Christopher Martyn writes in the medical journal QJM:
- These criticisms will hardly come as news to the biomedical research community. Had you eavesdropped at any scientific gathering over the last few years, you would have heard the same sort of thing. The report, however, validates our complaints, and shows that they amount to much more than sour grapes from researchers whose grant proposals have been turned down. It should also make us ask ourselves why we have put up with this state of affairs for so long. In compiling the report, the committee considered both written and oral evidence from a wide range of people with a stake in medical research. One worrying feature was that most of the scientists who gave evidence chose to present their views anonymously. (The exceptions deserve our admiration.) Why would they have elected to comment in this way unless they felt that voicing criticism of the MRC would damage their prospects of success in subsequent grant applications?
- The MRC say that their only criterion for funding is the quality of the science in the application, and we must believe them. But perhaps those who asked to remain anonymous found it hard to forget that the MRC administration controls the selection of peer reviewers, and has the power of appointment to the boards that recommend what shall and shall not be funded. It is difficult to interpret this perceived need for anonymity in any other way than an indication of lack of trust in the relationship between researchers and the UK’s main public funding body. MRC have responded to the report by accusing the committee of failing to recognize that their mission is to promote medical research with a view to improving human health. This is absurd. Anyone who takes the trouble to read the report and the evidence on which it is based can see that the committee’s gripe is not with the mission but with how the mission is being conducted. Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the MRC, also tried to defend the MRC’s record in a letter to the Times. He drew attention to the fact that it was MRC scientists who had discovered the structure of DNA, and that the MRC had funded research that had led to the important advances in health care such as monoclonal antibodies and trials of aspirin in heart disease. This is equally specious. How can past achievements, however glorious, justify current administrative incompetence? 
A couple of months after the publication of the committee's findings the MRC once again ran into trouble, the financial problems of the MRC forced Cleaver to come up with a plan to claw back some of the wasted cash. The plan was to reduce the £27 million pounds of public money the given to the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) each year by the MRC. This would be done by moving the institute from Mill Hill to Cambridge, a location which would distance the institute from the London hospitals they work closely with to develop the leading edge research that underpins new treatments. The news outraged the 150 scientists present when Cleaver announced his plan, 18 divisional heads of the NIMR walked out in protest. Writing in the Guardian, Robin Lovell-Badge, the head of the division of developmental genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research, made public his fury at the Cleaver plan he said "The proposal involved no discussion with staff, was not based on science and ignored rules of peer review and conflict of interest. Consequently, this has much wider implications for the way research is managed within the UK."
The chairman of the Health Committee, Dr Ian Gibson, said: "This embellishes all we said about insensitivity and lack of management skills. Nobody really knows how and why the decision was made. Closing the Mill Hill site will be a real loss to British science."
Cleaver and his senior colleagues at the MRC once again had to appear before a governmental committee to explain themselves, for the planned move of the NIMR from Mill Hill. The committee questioned Anthony Cleaver and Colin Blakemore over allegations of ignoring the views of senior stakeholders and of bullying and threatening those resistant to the plan. The outcome of this committee hearing was not very well publicised, however Cleaver's plan did not come to fruition, the NIMR is still based at Mill Hill.
- Donald Brydon CBE - Chairman of the Royal Mail Group, Smiths Group plc, Sage Group plc and the Medical Research Council. He had a 20-year career with Barclays Group, during which time he was Chairman and Chief Executive of BZW Investment Management and acting Chief Executive of BZW followed by fifteen years with the AXA Group including holding the posts of Chairman and Chief Executive of AXA Investment Managers. He has also recently been Chairman of the London Metal Exchange, Amersham plc, Taylor Nelson Sofres plc and the ifs School of Finance and a Director of Allied Domecq plc and Scottish Power plc. He is a past Chairman of EveryChild.
- Sir John Savill, Deputy Chair of Council
- Professor Jeffrey Almond
- Professor Michael Arthur
- Tony Caplin
- Professor Dame Sally Davies
- Professor Chris Day
- Dr Richard Henderson
- Professor Dame Sally Macintyre
- Vivienne Parry
- Professor Michael Schneider
- Professor Paul Morgan
- Baroness Onora O’Neill
- Dr Menelas Pangalos
- Dr Ruth McKernan
- Medical Research Council
- 14th Floor
- One Kemble Street
- WC2B 4AN
- Website: http://www.mrc.ac.uk/
- Medical Research Council, Events and News, accessed 12.11.2007.
- Christopher MartynNo Confidence in The MRC QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Volume 96, no.6, pp389-390 Last accessed November 13th 2007
- The Guardian, "Trouble at Mill Hill: Uprooting the National Institute for Medical Research will be a disaster, warns Robin Lovell-Badge," 22.05.2003, accessed 16.09.2013.
- Highfield, Roger, "Scientists attack plans to cut NIMR," Telegraph 03.06.2006, accessed 13.11.2007.
- UK Parliament, Select Committee on Science and Technology, Written Evidence APPENDIX 124, Publications & Records, accessed 14.11.2007.
- NIMR, Our Location, accessed 14.11.2007.
- SMC, Funding, accessed 29 September 2013. See also Science Media Centre - Funding