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Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom


The dramatic outbreak of Covid19 has turned the spotlight on the role of public medical research. A common concern, among others, relates to whether the usual research protocols are adequate in the case of a public health emergency. However, most people do not have thorough knowledge about the delicate mechanisms that govern, inform, and drive the functioning of a public research institution. The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a British government agency whose mission is to fund, coordinate, and support medical research at every level, including hospitals, universities, and various institutions (Medical Research Council, n.d.). Through the analysis of MRC, this paper offers an overview of public medical research, starting with a historical background of public funding, providing actual examples of how a public institution copes with topical issues, and investigating the rationale for government-sponsored research. A review of primary sources and scholarly articles will be included to support and clarify the main concepts.

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MRC, a Short History

Officially instituted in 1919, the Medical Research Council stemmed from a 1901 royal commission appointed to study tuberculosis, an urgent issue at the turn of the twentieth century. From a broader perspective, the Council was the logical consequence of the “State medicine” that had developed over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Landsborough Thomson, 1973, p. 3). The epochal changes in society after the Industrial Revolution had brought out many concerns regarding public hygiene, highlighted by endemic outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis, among others. Initially, state-aided medical research addressed preventive measures connected with public health issues, while therapeutic research was mainly financed through private fees and charity (Landsborough Thomson, 1973). With the creation of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Relations of Human and Animal Tuberculosis in 1901, the focus was to establish scientific evidence and promote investigation.

In 1911, the National Insurance Act allowed creating a public fund for medical research and constituted the first official step toward public-financed research. Starting in 1913, the Medical Research Committee and Advisory Council, organized research across the country, developed a research planning and distributed the funds among the eligible institutions. After World War I, in 1919, the committee became the Medical Research Council, an independent corporation with executive powers even if under the aegis of a ministerial committee (History, 2020). Since 2018, MRC has been part of the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Primary Sources at the Website

The Medical Research Council website provides a broad array of primary sources available online. The publication section includes annual reports, motivational documents, and evaluation reports (Publications, 2020). Researchers, scholars, and students have thorough documentation, guidance, and resources in the research section. For instance, the MRC Ethics Series guides offer considerations on good practice and integrity (Policies and guidance for researchers, 2020). The history section provides the link to the MRC history page at the National Archives website, and the chance to examine various documents, including the first annual report of the institution (National Health Insurance, 1914). This document, published in 1914, sheds light on the composition of the council, the administration of funds, the research scheme, and the fields of interest. Another engaging reading is the accurate history of the council compiled by Sir Landsborough Thomson (Landsborough Thomson, 1973). Though not strictly a primary source, the text has a unique value, as Landsborough Thomson had been a driving force of the council for nearly four decades.

Current Issues that the Institution is Experiencing Today

The most compelling issue currently faced by MRC relates to the Covid-19 pandemics. The institute is engaged on several fronts to study, understand, and curb the damages related to the virus. A recent study, for example, aims at understanding the relationship between the incidence of Covid-19 and low levels of vitamin D in black and minority ethnic populations (Hastie et al., 2020). Other research focuses on efficacy or specific treatments in improving survival rates. For instance, Lopinavir/ritonavir, which had proved effective against SARS and MERS coronaviruses, does not affect clinical improvement significantly (Song et al., 2020). Other current research issues relate to molecular and cellular medicine and neurosciences and mental health. Moreover, the council pioneers models to involve the public and patients in research (South et al., 2016). Finally, MRC promotes innovation by cooperating with industry through partnerships and shared resources.

Government Funded Scientific Research

The pros and cons of government-funded scientific research have fueled the public debate for decades. Detractors of government funding suggest that public research is not competitive compared to industrial innovation while it weighs excessively on the public debt. Advocates of the government-funded scientific research highlight how it increases competition and economy, encourage innovation, creates job, and boost welfare even in the long run. While a commonplace wants the most innovative research to be done by the private sector, evidence shows that the major player in pioneering technologies is the state (Mazzucato, 2013). Indeed, only governments can provide long-term economic support to make a substantial difference.


The Medical Research Council is a British institution aimed at promoting research across the whole spectrum of medical sciences. Officially founded in 1919, the council embodied the social aspirations and scientific goals of society following the Industrial Revolution. The institution grants funds to topical and long-term research, including issues related to the current coronavirus pandemics and aging. Large availability of reports, documents, and guidelines ensure both transparency and valid guidance for researchers. While the historical importance of public funding is unquestionable, it still represents the most effective way to promote research and innovation, as well as to guarantee advantages even in the distant future.

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Primary Sources

National Health Insurance. (1914). First annual report of the Medical Research Committee, 1914-1915. Harrison and Sons.

History. (2020). UKRI UK research and innovation. Web.

Policies and guidance for researchers. (2020). UKRI UK research and innovation. Web.

Publications. (2020). UKRI UK research and innovation. Web.

Secondary Sources

Hastie, C. E., Mackay, D. F., Ho, F., Celis-Morales, C. A., Katikireddi, S. V., Niedzwiedz, C. L., Jani, B. D., Welsh, P., Mair, F. S., Gray, S. R., O’Donnell, C. A., Gill, J. MR., Sattar, N., & Pell, J. P. (2020). Vitamin D concentrations and COVID-19 infection in UK Biobank. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, 14(4), 561–565. Web.

Landsborough Thomson, A. (1973). Half a century of medical research. Medical Research Council.

Mazzucato, M. (2013). State of innovation: Busting the private-sector myth. New Scientist. Web.

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Medical Research Council. (n.d.). Gov.Uk.

Song, Z., Hu, Y., Zheng, S., Yang, L., & Zhao, R. (2020). Hospital pharmacists’ pharmaceutical care for hospitalized patients with COVID-19: Recommendations and guidance from clinical experience. Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.

South, A., Hanley, B., Gafos, M., Cromarty, B., Stephens, R., Sturgeon, K., Scott, K., Cragg, W. J., Tweed, C. D., Teera, J., & Vale, C. L. (2016). Models and impact of patient and public involvement in studies carried out by the Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Unit at University College London: Findings from ten case studies. Trials, 17(1).

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