Funds merged to stop R&D money being 'diverted'

Last week's Budget surprise has stirred panic and split opinion among v-cs. The Times Higher investigates how the future of funding could pan out

Treasury plans to merge all public funding for UK medical research are an attempt to stop money leaking into the National Health Service, senior figures said this week, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, surprised the health sector when he announced in his Budget speech that he planned to merge the Medical Research Council and the research division of the Department of Health to create a single £1 billion ring-fenced fund.

Medical researchers said that although there was considerable room for error in the plan a merger could be the best way to stop research money being diverted to plug holes elsewhere in the NHS. Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University and a member of the MRC council, said: "The strong feeling is that in some trusts the research and development money is propping up patient care."

Senior research figures claimed this week that more than £30 million had been diverted from a four-year £100 million fund for medical research that was announced in the 2004 Budget. A high-level scientist told The Times Higher : "My very clear understanding is that the £30 million disappeared out of that budget at the beginning of the financial year. And £3 million more has been pulled out in recent weeks."

But a spokeswoman for the DH denied that any money had been taken out of the fund. She said: "We are still fully committed to reach the extra £100 million for medical research by 2008."

It is unclear whether the DH or the MRC will win control of the merged fund. A high-level industry player has been appointed to oversee consultation on the management structure.

A source said: "I understand that Colin Blakemore (chief executive of the MRC) didn't know about the Treasury's plan, but Sally Davies (director of research at the DH) had known for some time. That is worrying."

Dame Nancy said: "You have to look at where the experience is - in funding and in peer review. It is with the research council."

Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, welcomed ring-fenced funding.

But he said: "The figure mentioned of at least £1 billion per annum is considerably less than the combined R&D budgets of the MRC and DH, which amount to almost £1.3 billion."

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