The Scientist, March 8 (future of health research funding)

March 13, 2007

MRC head to step down

Colin Blakemore decides not to apply for a second term at the agency, currently in the midst of major reforms

By Stephen Pincock

Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of Britain's Medical Research Council, will be stepping down from the post in September at the end of his four-year term.

The 62-year-old neuroscientist said he had always anticipated leaving the research funding body in new hands after one term. "I always felt that if I was going to have a chance to do something significant after the MRC that four years would be long enough," he told The Scientist.

"Also, this is a pretty demanding job," he added. "I think four years is a pretty good period of time."

The news of Blakemore's stepping down was first reported in Nature.

Last year, the UK government began reforming medical research funding, creating an umbrella structure to oversee both the MRC and research within the National Health Service. One of the aims of the reform was to focus more attention on translational research.

"This is a new opportunity for the MRC and a fresh approach will be needed," Blakemore said. The reforms will mean significant changes for the organization, but "I'm confident the MRC will come through this with its position reinforced," he said.

"I'm extremely sorry he is going," said Phil Willis, Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee. "Colin Blakemore has done a superb job of what I'd call making the MRC not only fit for [its] purpose but also streamlining its operations."

Willis told The Scientist he thought the state of biomedical science in Britain was probably as good as it has ever been, "and that's due to Colin Blakemore's leadership."

Ole Petersen, a physiologist from Liverpool University and president of the Physiological Society, agreed that the status of the MRC had changed. "I don't think it is a transient situation," Petersen said. As part of its reorganization of research funding, the government established a new Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR), which makes the MRC less independent, he said. "That, I guess, makes the job [of heading the MRC] less attractive."

Blakemore's arrival at the MRC in 2003 generated a lot of enthusiasm, Petersen said. "I think Colin came with very good plans for the MRC…but their success was predicated on extra funding from the government and that did not come."

Since then, tight budgets at the MRC made grants increasingly difficult to come by for academics, Petersen said. "That has caused considerable distress in the academic community."

Blakemore disagreed. "The MRC is now spending literally more than triple the amount per annum on grant support than it did in 2002-2003," he said, although he also acknowledged that the MRC is still able to fund only about 75% of grant applications that are rated as internationally competitive. "This is a reflection of the very high quality of UK biomedical research, and our income does not allow us to satisfy all the demand," he said.

Blakemore said he also disagreed that the job of MRC chief is less attractive under the new setup. "It will be an exciting time," he said. "I don't share the view that the MRC will be terminally damaged."

"It's very hard running a research council at the moment," Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, and a member of the House of Lords, told The Scientist. "Maybe Colin Blakemore's decision will send just a frisson through the politicians that the research councils are not always sufficiently funded or independent, " he said.

"It's very unfortunate that the MRC is in this situation," added Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the stem cell biology group at the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research. "The MRC has always been good at basic research and any change of direction is a real pity for UK science."

Perhaps the most contentious problem Blakemore has faced during his tenure has been a plan to relocate and re-focus the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Willis said.

Proposals for this move predated Blakemore's appointment and have been vehemently opposed by staff at the institute. "He was handed a poisoned chalice," Willis said. "It has blighted not only his [tenure], but previous chief executives' too."

Blakemore admitted the NIMR situation had been a difficult one. "I've tried to deal with it as best I can," he said. "It's a massive problem, but I am pretty confident there will be a resolution before I leave."

In general, though, he said the past four years had been "a very positive experience." Highlights included re-balancing the MRC budget, stimulating translational research, creating new partnerships with major charities such as the Wellcome Trust in projects like the massive UK Biobank, and the MRC's fostering of the International Stem Cell Forum, he said.

Now, the researcher said he is considering offers for the future. Those include a possible role at Oxford, where he still holds a research chair, as well as positions overseas.

For the MRC, the challenge is to find someone with scientific credentials, and the skills to manage an organization the size of the MRC, said Winston. "They need someone with tough skin," added Willis. "You have to be genetically modified to do that job."

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