MPs to investigate stem cell funding row

Research councils called to explain why they decided to withdraw support
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The Independent Online

The two research councils that have turned down requests to fund stem-cell studies using human-animal "hybrid" embryos are to be questioned by MPs on both sides of the House of Commons to explain why they have refused to issue the grants.

As revealed by The Independent yesterday, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have declined to fund two separate teams of scientists who have been given licences by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to carry out the work. Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on science, said that he had written to the research councils to make sure that the funding decisions were made on scientific grounds alone, rather than being influenced by the personal moral position of anyone sitting on the expert funding panels.

Dr Harris is also concerned about the impact the decision not to fund the work of Professor Stephen Minger of King's College London and Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University's Centre for Life would have on the supply of human egg cells, now that work on using animal eggs to produce human embryonic stem cells has ground to a halt. "Just because Parliament has authorised research, it does not mean it will be funded as it must pass the peer review quality tests first," Dr Harris said. "However, I am concerned that the impact of this research on the preservation of scarce human eggs for fertility treatment has not been considered."

Phil Willis, the chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee, said he was "staggered" that two world-class laboratories had been turned down for funding and sought assurances that moral concerns played no part in funding decisions. "I'm hugely disappointed," he said, "given the efforts that we put into passing the legislation to enable research. I'm going to write to the chief executive of the MRC to ask what criteria have been used to turn applications down and ask what other embryonic stem cell research projects have been funded.

"King's College and Newcastle are regarded as world-leading laboratories in terms of this science and I find it quite staggering that both have had their applications turned down.

"We don't want government to be the arbiter of research funding. Equally when there is significant public interest in something that took over two years to get through Parliament then there is a right to know what the grounds are for deciding."

Colin Miles, head of systems biology at the BBSRC, said that selection of its funding panels' members did not take into account a person's religious beliefs or ethical persuasion, even when they had to judge the merits of such a controversial research proposal. "Having an HFEA licence to conduct a certain type of research does not automatically entitle researchers to funding," Dr Miles said. "They must still compete for funding based on scientific excellence and strategic impact and the potential of the project to add significantly to the body of knowledge in that area."

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the MRC, said that there was no better way to decide what should be funded than to use the peer-review system, where a panel of experts assesses applications. "This system... rules out the possibility of a personal moral view influencing the final outcome of a proposal," he said. "Fighting for the right to carry out such research does not mean that it should get priority over other applications."

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