MRC to change approach to unit and centre funding

Young scientists using microscope and digital tablet in an advanced research laboratory

Strategic approach will help tackle complex and interdisciplinary health challenges and ensure investment in areas with clear opportunities for impact.

Challenge-led

A challenge-led approach will focus on distinct, disruptive or interdisciplinary activity with the potential to achieve success within 10 to 15 years.

Investments will be outward facing, fostering collaborative research and providing a stimulating environment to train the next generation of researchers and technologists.

The new model is a change to how the Medical Research Council (MRC) funds, which makes no judgement on the importance of any area of science.

The need for change

In 2020, MRC published a review of how MRC unit and centres could maximise impact against the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary key research and health themes of the next decade.

The review agreed that the current MRC unit and centre portfolio has enormous strengths and had made important contributions, while identifying clear opportunities to improve impact, through:

  • improved integration and enhanced agility, both within the portfolio, to tackle shared challenges, and on key health issues
  • increased collaboration with other councils, medical charities, the National Institute for Health Research and industry
  • strengthening the portfolio’s sharing culture and capability, with the units and centres being national assets that set standards in the quality and impact of their work and in open science.

The new approach builds on the review, combining the best features of existing unit and centre funding to offer benefits and opportunities for existing units, future applicants, and potential partners.

Major Investments Board

A key recommendation of the review was the creation of a new MRC Major Investments Board (MIB) chaired by the MRC Executive Chair and bringing together:

  • the chairs of MRC’s research boards
  • representatives from the MRC management board
  • MRC Council and independent members to provide horizon-scanning, review and oversight of MRC’s major investments portfolio.

Initially MIB will focus on establishing the new unit funding model, but more broadly will look at investments needed long-term and at scale.

All areas of science will be considered individually and in the context of the broad range of funding routes available.

Annual competition

An annual two-stage funding opportunity for new unit investments will award budgets of up to £3 million per annum over 14 years at 80% full economic cost. It will be provided as a grant to the host organisation.

This will align units with the financial model preferred by most of the system, simplifying interactions with host institutions, with scope for hosting to include several institutions.

This is also more accessible to other funders, enabling joint units with:

  • other parts of UK Research and Innovation
  • research charities
  • industry
  • other funders.

A more streamlined review process, with a review at year six to confirm a second seven-year renewal.

Growth and sustainability

Units will have their own scientific advisory board and leadership by an empowered director, as part of an executive team with clearly defined roles. There is potential for rotation of the primary leadership role.

Pursuit of external grants will embed the unit in an ecosystem where it can connect broadly and generate value and additional activity aligned to the core mission.

Fair and transparent competition will ensure growth and sustainability through competitive grants and fellowships.

Long term security

Units will benefit from an investment of £40 million to £50 million over 14 years, providing direction, certainty and long-term financial security.

Key features of this investment include:

  • inter-related research programmes and work packages which focus on key objectives rather than operating as traditional individual principal investigator (PI)-led programmes
  • long-term agendas incorporating several PIs who might move in and out of programmes over the unit’s lifespan
  • units will not provide full support to PIs, who will be independent and contributing to a work programme, and can still gain grants elsewhere
  • internationally competitive PI’s will bring in grants and wider income around salaries, leveraging value against the core funding and building a critical mass and breadth of support through a portfolio approach
  • the wider portfolio of grants will be staggered, so there will be no sudden ends to funding
  • PIs will be supported for between 15 to 30% of their time, in line with their research contribution. Unit directors will be supported for up to 30% of their time
  • recruitment of new PIs critical for the programme delivery where 100% support might be needed before grant funding is available
  • support for technicians, support staff and postdocs where there is a clear definition of how a support requirement cannot be met by the university
  • innovative training agendas for early career researchers where conventional routes are unsuitable
  • most early career researcher support to be in conventional routes, for example, doctoral training pathways and fellowships
  • technology and data platforms to provide accessible facilities and capability essential to the mission and to promote open-science objectives
  • flexibility fund to pump-prime activities and support new opportunities
  • capital funding for mid-range equipment, with large equipment to be funded through external competition
  • external stakeholder activities including public engagement and involvement
  • core funding will not apply to national infrastructure or platforms although consideration will be given to how infrastructure essential to a unit can be met if funding cannot be found elsewhere
  • ensuring appropriate capital and specialist support may mean extra funding either direct to the unit, in competition or through a link to the university
  • all current reviews and planned timelines remain for unit quinquennial review (QQR) awards ending within 2023 to 2024 financial year, with reviews scheduled beyond that subject to the new model
  • existing units and centres can choose to apply through the new model instead of going through their scheduled QQR.

By working together

Community engagement is crucial to delivering this new way of working.

As MRC continues to establish the details of this transformation, there will be continuous updates and opportunities for feedback on all processes and timelines involved.

In the meantime, we are here to take feedback and answer your questions. Please get in touch at: units@mrc.ukri.org

MRC Executive Chair Professor John Iredale said:

This long-term, challenge-led focus will help MRC better support progress against the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary health challenges faced by society and ensure MRC investment is aimed at areas with clear opportunity for impact.

I look forward to supporting and working with our community so our journey to this model has minimal impact on everyone involved, while maximising the many potential benefits and opportunities on offer.

Top image:  Credit: gorodenkoff, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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