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Insight blog: Posts from the "Behind the MRC scenes" Category

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

Science doesn’t only need sprinters

18 Mar 2015

At the moment, researchers have a certain number of years after their PhD to apply for MRC fellowships, after which point they’re ineligible. But is a ticking clock the best way for scientists to flourish? Here Simone Bryan, Programme Manager for Strategic Projects here at the MRC, explains why we’re removing time-bound criteria from our fellowship applications to help give people the time they need.  

A hurdler seen through a row of hurdles

(Image: Robert Voors on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

One of the best things about my job is getting the chance to meet so many brilliant and talented researchers who are doing jobs they love. But, for all its wonder, pursuing a research career is competitive and challenging.

In particular, moving from being a postdoc to an independent investigator in your own right is hugely challenging. It’s usually done by securing a personal fellowship which pays your salary and research costs. [...]

Continue reading: Science doesn’t only need sprinters

Actually, we do fund studies of illicit drugs

5 Mar 2015

A cannabis plant

(Image: Drome on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Whatever you might have heard in the media, we do fund research into illicit psychoactive drugs. Here Dr Kathryn Adcock, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the MRC, explains.

You might have seen in the news today that Professor David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has said that UK funders are unwilling to fund research that uses illicit drugs.

But we agree that recreational drugs may have therapeutic benefits, and we encourage research in this area. That’s why in 2012 we funded Professor Nutt to the tune of over £500,000 for his research into whether psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – can treat major depression. In 2013 we funded his £250,000 project to use psilocybin in schizophrenia research. [...]

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Getting the best out of biological samples

12 Feb 2015

Tissue samples stored in microscope slides

Tissue samples (Image: euthman on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hundreds of thousands of biological samples such as blood, urine and tissue blocks are kept in research institutions and hospitals across the UK. Within them may lie the answers to some of the biggest questions in medical research. Getting the best out of samples relies on donors understanding what they may be used for and researchers feeling confident about when they can use and share them. Here Professor James Ironside, Professor of Clinical Neuropathology at the University of Edinburgh, tells us about new MRC guidance on the practicalities and ethics of using biological samples.

“It’s better not to restrict the possible use of the sample because by restricting it you’re increasing the chance that it’ll go to waste. You want the highest probability that something good will come from it.”

Those are the words of a patient surveyed about the public’s views on the use of biological samples in medical research [1]. So how do we go about increasing the chances that samples will be useful?

Samples of human biological material have always been crucial to medical research, but as we move into an era in which huge amounts of data can be analysed easily, getting the best out of each and every sample is becoming more important than ever. [...]

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The history of animal research at the NIMR

4 Dec 2014

Three members of staff with dogs at Rhodes Farm in 1928

Staff with dogs at Rhodes Farm in 1928

Today’s research animals live in high-tech environments designed with welfare in mind. The contrast with the situation in the early 20th century when the MRC National Institute for Medical Research was founded is marked, and the institute itself has made a huge contribution to this progress. Here we look at just some of their contributions, extracted from a book telling the story of the research institute’s 100-year history.

No one does animal research for the sake of it, and those charged with looking after research animals are committed ― and held by law ― to ensuring that animals used in research are provided with the highest standards of care and welfare.

In the institute’s early days, animals were housed in individual labs, but in 1922 the MRC bought 39 acres of land at Mill Hill in north London to create field laboratories at Rhodes Farm. Within a year, there were specially designed facilities for breeding and keeping dogs and small animals, with local girls helping to care for and exercise the dogs. At the main institute site in Hampstead animals were kept in a new annex ― built in 1927 ― in “the highest possible standard of hygienic conditions for the keeping of experimental animals”. [...]

Continue reading: The history of animal research at the NIMR

Behind the scenes at an MRC Panel

6 Nov 2014

We’ve looked at what it’s like to be a member of an MRC board, but what actually happens at a meeting? Katherine Nightingale sat in on part of a Panel session to find out.

Scoring equipment

The scoring equipment used by the Panel

In a large, bright room on the 13th floor of a London office block, 25 people are deciding how to spend up to £10 million. They are the MRC’s Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme (DPFS) Panel, charged with making decisions on applications for funding the development and testing of new therapies, medical devices and diagnostics.

The task at hand is to consider a set of 15 full applications seeking just over £15m for funding. Each application has already been the subject of considerable work from the Panel during the outline stage, which does what it says on the tin, with the Panel feeding back on a brief description of the project. [...]

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Q&A: The ins and outs of the Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative

23 Oct 2014

MRI scan of a human head

An MRI scan of a human head (Image credit: Wikipedia/everyone’s idle)

Today Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the recipients of our Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative, with 23 projects receiving a total of just over £170m. But what exactly are these ‘capabilities’, what do we hope to achieve, and where did all that money come from? Katherine Nightingale takes a closer look.

What do we mean by clinical research capabilities?

It’s about new technologies for clinical research. We’re all familiar with the idea of clinical research being about clinical trials to assess drugs, devices and diagnostics in people. Clinical research is often seen as the end of the ‘pipeline’ from making discoveries in the laboratory to helping patients, but that’s not the whole story.

We want to make clinical research in the UK also about studying disease at the molecular, cellular, organ and whole-body level ― and to do that researchers need new tools. This includes better body-imaging equipment, new technology for monitoring physiology, and ways of analysing the intricacies of disease in cells and tissues. Doing this needs big pieces of kit, as well as resources for building on the equipment in the future and using it in new ways.

Discoveries made in this way might then be fed back ‘into the lab’ or go on to influence further clinical research. The aim is that by funding these technologies, we’ll build on existing infrastructure, and speed up innovation by allowing researchers to explore new areas. [...]

Continue reading: Q&A: The ins and outs of the Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative

Q&A: What it takes to be on an MRC board

9 Sep 2014

Moira Whyte

Moira Whyte (Image: Academy of Medical Sciences)

It’s that time of year when we open up applications for new members of our boards and panels. Here Professor Moira Whyte, Head of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, talks to Katherine Nightingale about her experience being a member of an MRC board ― and the benefits it can have to researchers.

What has your involvement with MRC boards been?

I’ve been a member of Population and Systems Medicine Board (PSMB) for four years and I was Deputy Chair of the panel making decisions about the MRC-NIHR Efficacy and Mechanisms Evaluation Programme for five. Both of those commitments ended this year. As well as this, I’ve been involved in other activities such as evaluating stratified medicine funding calls.

How has being a board member affected your day-to-day work?

The obvious commitment is preparing for and attending the board meetings, which are held three times a year for PSMB. There is also a preliminary stage to each meeting where you read grant applications and comment on them online as part of the triage system. Some of these will be preliminary applications for large grants that the board helps shape, and others will be more standard grant applications.

The number of applications you read can vary, but it takes about a day to do the preliminary reading and then probably another day to prepare for the board meeting. [...]

Continue reading: Q&A: What it takes to be on an MRC board

Collaborating with compounds

4 Sep 2014

Chris Watkins

Chris Watkins

In July we unveiled a new partnership with seven pharmaceutical companies to share deprioritised compounds for research in new disease areas. Here Chris Watkins, the MRC’s Director of Translational Research and Industry, explains how the collaboration came about and the role it plays in the MRC’s strategy for collaborating with industry.

One of the big challenges in medical research is understanding the biology of human disease. But there’s a problem with that. It’s not surprising that the best way of understanding human disease is to study it in people, using molecules where you have an idea of how they will work and which you know are safe to give to study participants.

But these molecules are mainly developed by industry, once they’re pretty confident that they might become treatments. So how do you gain the evidence about the disease mechanism in the first place? You need access to the molecules. That’s exactly what the current drug discovery landscape needs, and what the partnership we announced is aiming to do. [...]

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Fishing with the same rod

29 Jul 2014

ResearchfishLast month it was announced that from September 2014 all seven research councils will use the Researchfish tool to collect information from their researchers. As the questions Researchfish will ask researchers are revealed, MRC Evaluation Officer Ellen Charman explains what the move means for MRC-funded researchers.

In a couple of months, the remaining research councils will be joining the MRC and STFC in using Researchfish to collect information on the outputs and impact of research.

So what? I hear you ask… Well, practically, there is little change for MRC researchers. The system remains open to enter data at any time and this year’s data submission period will go ahead as planned, opening on 16 October and closing on 13 November.

To take into account the addition of five extra research disciplines, there will be some minor changes to the question set.The majority of these changes are to the guidance and help text; however there are a few additional questions where we’ll ask for more detail, for example, the type of further funding and the purpose of an engagement activity.

There is also a new opportunity for you to tell us about your creative side, which Professor Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London might have found helpful last year when letting us know about his 2012 stage performance  — ‘Our germs, our guns: an uneasy peace’ — at the Albert Hall Theatre in Brussels. [...]

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Front line operations: MRC fieldworkers in The Gambia

25 Jun 2014

Forming the front line of research operations, fieldworkers carry out a vital role in the work of the MRC’s unit in The Gambia. Ashwin Mehta, from the MRC resilience team, supports training in the field and explains how the work carried out by fieldworkers is fundamental to saving lives and improving health.

A fieldworker talks to a mother at the immunisation clinic

A fieldworker talks to a mother at the immunisation clinic

MRC research operations in The Gambia consist of fieldwork in communities and clinical work in hospitals and clinics, which generates samples and data to be used in laboratory research.

As well as interacting with communities to promote the MRC mission and getting consent from communities to conduct medical research, fieldworkers are responsible for a wide range of activities from disseminating health information to collecting data and samples from people in local communities.

The MRC Unit in The Gambia currently employs more than 300 fieldworkers across three main sites in Fajara, Keneba and Basse. Fieldworkers are recruited from the local population with the equivalent of secondary-school education, and trained up on the job. Mafuji Dibba, Fieldworker Training Manager, has been working in the field for 30 years and has worked at all three sites: “Fieldworkers’ experience as they progress gives them a good idea of disease prevention and treatment. This allows them to serve as advisors in their communities. [...]

Continue reading: Front line operations: MRC fieldworkers in The Gambia