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MRC opportunity profile: Using the Research Complex at Harwell

Four times a year, the Medical Research Council considers proposals from researchers who wish to use the Harwell research complex. Adam Smith finds out from the MRC's Adam Babbs and Harwell's Simon Phillips what they look for in an applicant.

Right now, the MRC is keen to support 15 to 20 researchers who wish to base themselves at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory or the Diamond Light Source synchrotron. Applications must come through one of the MRC’s programmes, such as for a research grant or fellowship, so there is no funding limit and no one MRC panel to see all applications. So what are the two organisations looking for in a successful applicant?

Simon Phillips, director at the Harwell complex, says:

I ask them to think where the added value is in bringing their project here.

The MRC's programme manager, Adam Babbs, agrees, but adds a crucial rider:

His [Phillips’] backing for a project is key for its success.

Phillips says a successful application must demonstrate twin benefits. There are two aspects, he says. One is why that work would be more effective here rather than where they’re coming from, which is usually a university, and the answer to that might be the proximity to the synchrotron or laser facility or just the multidisciplinary nature of the lab. The other is how would they add value to what we’ve got here already. For example, maybe they’ll bring a technique that other people here don’t use yet.

Previous projects undertaken at Harwell include the Oxford Protein Production Facility, a structural proteomics facility led by Ray Owens of the Division of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford’s medicine department; and the Collaborative Computational Project in Protein Crystallography, which is chaired by Martin Noble of Newcastle University and aims to produce and support programmes to help researchers determine macromolecular structures by X-ray crystallography, and other biophysical techniques.

The Harwell complex houses a mixture of projects: some are based there for three or more years, whereas others require a piece of equipment for only six months. That said, the complex will look favourably on applications promising that a principal investigator will be on site for a long time—the most common route to Harwell for the MRC community is through a three-year research grant.

Babbs recommends that the first step before an application should be to contact Phillips. Phillips agrees and says he is always willing to talk to potential applicants about the available facilities and help them to create a proposal in line with the site’s priorities.

Later, Phillips writes a commentary on each application and this is incorporated into a briefing for a board of peer reviewers. These reviewers whittle applications down to a shortlist that is passed on to the MRC to decide what to fund.

Between shortlisting and the board’s decision, applications are sent back to applicants. Babbs says: All applicants are given the opportunity to comment and that can feed into the board’s decision. Phillips says he is often asked by applicants for a letter of support, but he refuses in order to keep the competition fair.

Babbs recommends that hopefuls think hard about how much money to apply for. Harwell covers estate costs (IT and dish-washing, says Babbs), but applicants must account for: consumables; health and safety training and assessment; travel, if the researchers will split time between their university and Harwell; and relocation if applicable—the MRC would cover the cost of relocation for, say, six months, but not three years. Once again, Phillips is on hand to help applicants calculate costs.
 But he wants to make it clear that he is not the kingpin, nor the boss: proposals still go through peer review and then an MRC board. The researcher still remains part of the home institution. The practical employment issues are nothing to do with us; we’re a hotel.

So which scientific fields would he welcome most of all? We’ve got quite a nucleus of structural biology going on here, from microscopy and various imaging to crystallography, and we could do with more people bridging something in between: people interested in structure of larger cellular assemblies, which sits between the crystallographic and imaging methods, Phillips says. At the moment, there is talk of building a major electron microscopy facility, so proposals requiring that might be very timely, he adds.

The other thing we’ve been doing is building links between us and the Mary Lyon Centre for genetics [also at Harwell]. The people working with mouse phenotypes there are interested in good-quality imaging and the people here are interested in people with skills with transgenic mouse technology.

Phillips adds that although the catalysis side at Harwell is creaking at the seams, there’s plenty of space for biologists—especially those brave enough to break the mould. We’re looking for bolshie biologists with big ideas, he says.

The deadline for the next round of applications is 8 January 2013.