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UK House of Commons Report Slams MRC for Mismanagement, BioBank Issues: MRC Rebuts Criticism

NEW YORK, March 25 - The UK Medical Research Council, along with its BioBank project to collect DNA from 500,000 people for population genomics research, came under sharp criticism from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, in a report released Monday by the UK parliamentary body.


The report took the MRC to task for its grant review process, its alleged financial mismanagement, and for its handling of the BioBank, which the committee called "a politically driven project."


"The MRC has mismanaged its funds in such a way as to create unwarranted fluctuations in its awards of new grants with consequent adverse impacts on their research community," the report reads. "It appears to have gambled on increases in income that were not, and were unlikely to be, forthcoming.


The MRC  said in a statement released today on its website that it was "deeply disappointed" in the report, and that it did not accept "the committee's criticisms of our planning process."


The MRC has a budget of £400 million ($629.2 million), making it the UK's largest publicly funded biomedical granting agency.


While this overall budget has increased nearly 29 percent since 1997, the report noted that the total number of grants the MRC awarded dropped precipitously in the past few years, from 1,500 in 1996-97 to 250 in 2000-2001.


The MRC originally claimed that the drop in funding for grants stemmed from the funding for the MaryLyonCenter, a transgenic animal facility that had originally been scheduled to open at the end of 2002 but may not begin operations until mid-2003. But last December, the report said, the council changed its reason for this drying up of grant monies, saying that it was due to a commitment of funds for the UK Biobank projects and international appointments.


The committee report pointed out that Career Establishment Grants designed for early-career researchers had only an 11 percent success rate in 2000-2001, and dropped to an 8 percent success rate for 2001-2002. It said this success rate was "unacceptable," and noted that "the anger of the research community at the MRC's funding problems is not only understandable but entirely justified."


Despite this overly stringent grant review process, the Biobank was funded "before the scientific questions over its value and methodology were fully addressed," the report alleged.


The committee faulted the MRC for inadequately consulting the community about key aspects of the Biobank, and for failing to specifically define consent offered to participants and to warn the participants that the information could be used by police. It also raised issues about the security of data, and the actual process of sample collection and storage, noting that Oxford Glycosciences' Andrew Lyall has called for collection of serum samples, along with DNA samples, in order to facilitate research on the proteomics of disease. 


In its response to this report, the MRC refuted the suggestion that the Biobank is politically driven. "For many years we were criticized for funding research in molecular biology because people questioned its relevance to health," the MRC said. "The subsequent mapping of the human genome has demonstrated the importance of that investment. A similar issue arises with UK Biobank today."


The MRC also rejected the criticism related to its grants for younger scientists. "The fact that the number of grant awards fluctuate from year to year - and we are trying to ensure that we do more in future to "smooth" the funding  - does not reduce the total number of posts in units and in universities that are supported by the MRC and that provide posts for young researchers," the MRC said.


The MRC said it had taken a "general reputation audit" to solicit objective view of outside perceptions of the council.



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