Medical Research Council

The Medical Research Council (MRC), formerly the Medical Research Committee, is a government-sponsored national funding body for medical research in Britain.

The Medical Research Committee was established on 20 June 1913 as an independent body responsible for the organisation of state-funded medical research. The financial support for this work was provided by a subsection of the 1911 National Insurance Act, which set aside £57,000 a year for research purposes. Although initially earmarked for combatting tuberculosis (TB), the Committee was given the freedom to pursue a much broader set of investigations into health and disease. In 1914, Cambridge physiologist Walter Morley Fletcher (1873-1933) was appointed the first Secretary of the Committee. In the same year, work began on the construction of a central research institute for the Committee in Hampstead, London, which opened as the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in 1920.

After the First World War, the Committee was implicated in larger-scale debates about the reorganisation of government and public services. The Machinery of Government Committee, also known as the Haldane Committee, determined that the Medical Research Committee should remain independent of departmental oversight and separate from the recently established Ministry of Health. This decision was confirmed by the granting of a Royal Charter to the newly-christened Medical Research Council on 20 March 1920. The Charter freed the MRC from its original financial provisions under the 1911 Act and instead provided direct parliamentary funding at the discretion of the Committee of Privy Council for Medical Research. In practice, the Privy Council exerted little influence on the day-to-day running of the MRC, with research priorities and staff appointments largely made in-house.

While the Second World War (1939-1945) and the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 encouraged closer collaboration between the MRC and government departments, the Council’s autonomy remained largely intact throughout the twentieth-century. Following the 1965 Science and Technology Act and the subsequent abolition of the Privy Council, funding authority over the MRC passed to the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Following a series of departmental closures and mergers in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, financial responsibility for the MRC has been held by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy since 2016.