MRC Announces New Approach to Unit and Centre Funding

A long-term, challenge-led approach will be adopted along with funding totalling £40-£50 million over 14 years.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) has announced a new challenge-led approach to the way it funds MRC units and centres. The approach aims to better address complex and interdisciplinary health challenges while ensuring that investment is targeted at areas with clear opportunities for impact.

The new 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, promote collaborative research and foster the right conditions to train the next generation of researchers and technologists.

The updated strategy builds on the recommendations of a 2020 review of how MRC unit and centres could maximise impact. The new approach aims to retain the best features of the existing unit and centre funding model and combine these with the review’s recommendations to offer benefits and opportunities for existing units, future applicants, and potential partners.

One of the review’s key recommendations was the creation of a new MRC Major Investments Board (MIB) to provide horizon-scanning, review and oversight of MRC’s major investments portfolio. The MIB will be chaired by the MRC Executive Chair and bring together: the chairs of MRC’s research boards; representatives from the MRC management board; and MRC Council and independent members.

MIB will initially focus on establishing the new unit funding model, but will subsequently examine the investments needed in the 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.

As part of the announcement, the MRC has confirmed that an annual two-stage funding opportunity will operate to support new unit investments, with up to £3 million available a year over 14 years at 80% full economic cost. Awards will be provided as a grant to the host organisation, which 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.

Together, units will benefit from an investment of £40-£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.

MRC will provide updates and opportunities for feedback on all processes and timelines involved as it establishes details of the new approach. Those with any questions or seeking further details are invited to email the MRC.

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.”

(This report was the subject of a ResearchConnect Newsflash.)