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British Research Agency Under Fire
25 March 2003 (All day)
CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--Britain's Medical Research Council (MRC), the main public funder of biomedical research, was forced to defend itself this week against charges ranging from making capricious funding decisions to inadequately consulting the research community over plans for the $70 million Biobank, a huge data repository on the genetics and lifestyle of the British population.
Those and other accusations were leveled in an excoriating report released on 24 March by the science and technology committee of the House of Commons. The report, based on testimony from scientists, pressure groups, government officials, and the MRC, concludes that "there is significant disquiet about the policies and performance of the MRC" and that its perceived shortcomings have "harmed the reputation of the organisation and caused great resentment among … the research community." MRC chief executive George Radda told ScienceNOW that he is "surprised and disappointed" by the report, which he asserts "is full of errors, misunderstanding, and misuse of information." In a statement, the MRC vigorously denied several of the allegations.
The report lays into the MRC over Biobank, an ambitious effort over the next decade to probe the British population's genetic makeup and way of life in order to flush out factors that influence common diseases such as cancer and diabetes (ScienceNOW, 29 April). Although deeming Biobank "an exciting project," the panel felt that "a scientific case for Biobank has been put together by the funders to support a politically driven project." Some prominent U.K. scientists also express concerns. "It requires a very close look," says genetic fingerprinting pioneer Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester, who says he is not convinced that a large-scale longitudinal study will necessarily yield more insights than traditional case-control studies.
A more detailed accounting will come soon, Radda says, after Biobank's chief executive and its coordinating universities are announced in the coming weeks. But he insists that the project was not driven by politics. "Biobank was initiated by the scientific community," he says. "It was scientists who convinced us that it was worthwhile." Radda says the MRC has already forwarded a detailed rebuttal to the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Health, which together will produce the government's formal response to the report.