About us

What are Institutes, Units and Centres?

The MRC has a mission to support research and training with the aim of maintaining and improving human health. To address important scientific opportunities and health needs, and when stand-alone grant support alone is insufficient, our three main support mechanisms are: 

  1. Institutes – very long-term flexible multidisciplinary investments
  2. Units – more focused investments established for as long as needed to support a scientific need and/or deliver a research vision
  3. Centres – build on existing MRC, and other, support to add value and help establish a centre of excellence.

All three are mission-focused and carry out ground-breaking research including innovative methodology and technology development. Developing strategically driven initiatives, led by an expert scientific director, can help promote novel, high risk approaches, cooperative research programmes, or the development of shared infrastructure.

They are all expected to recruit and, in partnership with the HEIs and other organisations, develop outstanding researchers with specialist and transferable skills for academic research, the health services and the national economy. They work in partnerships to ensure maximal knowledge transfer for health benefit.

In any field, the need for these support mechanisms will change over time. Successful research progress may mean that approaches are quickly integrated into HEI research in the area, or that a unit or centre has to change its form and direction.

Institutes

Institutes adopt broad multidisciplinary approaches to address major challenges in health-related research often requiring ground breaking methodology and technology development.

They are provided with sustained support and state-of-the-art facilities over a long period of time. This allows the use of highly innovative and risky approaches across a flexible range of disciplines, that would not be feasible in a university setting, to tackle crucially important and complex issues over long periods of time.

Institutes attract and develop outstanding students and early career scientists from the UK, and internationally, providing in-depth, advanced research training and a broad multidisciplinary research environment.

Institutes are often preferred when the MRC intends to be the keystone of support for a particular area. Institutes may be based on MRC or non-MRC employment models according to the setting. In either case, support is only justified if a suitable high quality research director can be found.

Units

Units are set up to meet specific needs, for example, to provide scientific leadership in key research fields, or to tackle important research questions where the need cannot easily be addressed through grant funding. This can be because the research area calls for:

  • Strong and distinctive scientific leadership
  • Close coordination across disciplines and activities
  • Development of methods and technologies
  • Support for the development of novel or higher risk programmes and capabilities.

Units attract and develop outstanding students and early career programme leaders from the UK and internationally and often have a major impact through developing future research leaders in their specialist areas.

There is no set limit on the lifespan of a unit. However they often make their major impact in the field within 15 years, with their successful approaches and lines of investigation becoming increasingly integrated into HEI research in the field.

Units are often preferred when the MRC intends to be the keystone of support for a particular area. They may be supported through HEI employment, or MRC employment according to the setting, but the expectations of their scientific mission, distinctiveness, role of director, and research productivity are the same in both models. All new units are embedded as fully as possible in a research-active university. In either case, support is only justified if a suitable high quality research director can be found.

There are two types of unit: the long-established and well-known intramural units (where the MRC is the main employer) and the newer university units (where the university is the main employer). The expectations of their scientific mission, their distinctiveness, the role of director, and research productivity are the same in both models.

University units are either established from scratch, or through transfer of an existing unit to a university. Those intramural units that evolve into university units can potentially benefit from new scientific opportunities and funding streams, strengthened integration with university research activities, and efficiency gains/cost savings thatcan be reinvested into science. We, and the host university, also benefit from enhanced branding and prestige.

MRC Unit transfer to University Units – key MRC policy principles (PDF 20KB) (PDF, 19KB)

Our full policy on University Units is available on request from qqreviews@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk.

Centres

Centres allow us to help HEIs develop and consolidate internationally competitive, high-profile centres of excellence with a clear strategic direction in areas of importance for UK medical research.

Centres provide intellectually stimulating and well-resourced programmes and environments which not only are attractive to established researchers but also to new investigators. They are usually set up to provide the core for developing initiatives in partnership with others.

Centres have an important role in capacity development in a focused area, with MRC funding for training often focused at the PhD and individual fellowship level, in both clinical and non-clinical research.

MRC core funding is provided for a set period to develop the centre’s capabilities and research strategy, and is expected to help HEIs attract further support from other funders as well as the MRC.

Reviewing MRC investments

All institute/unit/centre investments are reviewed every five years. See the Summary of MRC Quinquennial Reviews document (PDF, 99KB) for further information.

Current figures

As of July 2016 we have:

  • 3 institutes
  • 28 units (10 intramural and 18 extramural)
  • 22 centres and related charity partnerships

MRC is also the largest funder of the Francis Crick Institute in London.