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Fishing for results

It’s the time of year when we ask MRC-funded researchers to sit down at their keyboards and fill out their submissions to our Researchfish data-gathering system. But why are we asking for the number of patents researchers have filed, or how many times they’ve given a public lecture? Ellen Charman from our evaluation team explains.

Evaluating the impact of our research has never been more important. The Government’s spending review of 2010 protected the MRC budget in real terms and provided a ring-fenced budget for science, a move which was welcomed by research councils, universities, learned societies, charities and the private sector. This was the hard-fought-for result of a united campaign that demonstrated that investment in medical research is critical not only for society, but the UK economy too.

However, as we approach a further four-year spending review, there is continued pressure on the MRC and all of the research councils to provide better estimates of our return on investment. We intend to build on our existing evidence with the numbers on how MRC-funded research is making an impact, as well as telling persuasive stories about where our research is making a difference.

At the heart of this evidence-gathering are our scientists. We rely on researchers to inform us about the outputs of their research; from their publications and intellectual property to their public engagement activities and where they have influenced policy. So it’s essential that this isn’t an overly cumbersome process for already-busy people.

This is where Researchfish comes in. Researchfish is the online system developed by the MRC that allows researchers to enter their research outputs once, update them annually and attribute them to the relevant MRC grants. And because Researchfish is now also used by more than 70 research funders, including Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation, research outputs linked to different funders can be reported using the same system. For the first time, funding organisations will share a common picture of outputs across the whole of the UK.

Researchfish has given us an invaluable source of high-quality evidence that enhances our understanding of how MRC research improves health and wellbeing via economic, academic and social routes. As well as using it as evidence for Government spending reviews, it also helps us to assess progress against our Strategic Plan. We also return the information to universities to help them with their submissions to the Research Excellence Framework, the method by which higher education institutions are assessed.

Thanks to information submitted by our researchers, we found out about the work of Professor Henry Houlden at University College London, which has led to the first experimental treatment for a rare childhood form of motor neuron disease. We learnt about how Dr Andrew Nunn at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit contributed to the development of new WHO guidelines on the treatment of tuberculosis, and how the University of Cardiff’s Professor Alastair Sloan developed a human dental pulp stem cell line which means it’s no longer necessary to use animals for the isolation of dental cells.

We have also be able to document the impact that MRC-supported research has had on the creation or growth of private companies, including MRC spin out Heptares Therapeutics which has generated at least £30m of new venture capital and now employs over 70 staff, and Oxford University spin out Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which in 2012 unveiled a prototype DNA sequencer aimed at sequencing an entire human genome for less than $1,000. We’ve also identified a measurable increase in collaborations between researchers from the private sector and MRC-funded research teams.

We’ve also celebrated the recognition our researchers receive from others, such as Professor Kathryn Maitland from Imperial College London winning 2012 BMJ Research Paper of the Year Award for her paper on the Fluid Expansion as Supportive Therapy Trial (FEAST), and Dr Jason Chin’s (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology) 2011 Louis-Jeantet Young Investigator Career Award for his ground-breaking work in synthetic biology.

These and the rest of the 150,000 outputs now held in our collection all play their part in conveying the variety, progress, and significant impact delivered by MRC research.

Ellen Charman

Evaluation reports from 2012 Researchfish data are now available. The submission period for 2013 opens on Tuesday 1 October and closes on Thursday 14 November.

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