U.K. Revamps University Research Grants

Britain's Medical Research Council (MRC) is planning major changes in the way it funds projects in universities, pushing researchers to forge collaborations or else see their funds dry up.

The MRC, which now spends $110 million per year on short-term project grants and related projects to individual scientists in universities, announced last week that it plans to replace its old funding scheme with five new categories that will focus funding on multidisciplinary teams large enough to create a critical mass. At the core are two categories--Cooperative Group Grants and Centre Grants--which will fund about 100 teams. Another two categories will help universities and researchers build strengths to compete for group grants. A fifth category will continue to fund individual investigators with small grants of less than $65,000, but only those with a proven track record.

The new team-oriented categories, which begin in 1998, will cut back on administration costs by reducing the number of projects that must undergo peer review. The present subject-based grant committees will be scrapped in favor of a single new advisory board for initial scientific assessment of proposed projects. A second board will then look at how well the projects fit the new multidisciplinary mission.

The changes "allow universities both to build on existing research strengths and provide opportunities to develop expertise in new areas," an MRC spokesperson says. But the new plan poses a threat to funding for individual small groups. As the spokesperson says: "They should think about getting themselves into a co-op."