Looking at an old funding decision

A historical article by Martin Johnson et al in Human Reproduction gives a fascinating insight into research funders’ thinking nearly 40 years ago.
In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is widespread these days but still manages to excite controversy in some quarters. Back in 1971, when Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards submitted a proposal to the MRC, many people had misgivings about IVF including eminent scientists such as Jim Watson. Johnson and co-authors have used archive material and interviews to examine the background and reasons for MRC’s refusal to fund their project. Johnson lists four key reasons for the rejection, and it is interesting to see how science, ethics and research strategy are all components of the decision.

  • A strategic error by Edwards and Steptoe when they declined an invitation from the MRC to join a new, directly funded Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow. They preferred to ask for long-term grant support at the University of Cambridge, but this meant they had to compete for funding with all the other research projects bidding for MRC support. This was also difficult for Cambridge, which lacked the back-up of an academic Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at that time.
  • Most of the MRC referees who were consulted on the proposal considered, in line with government policy, that it was more important to limit fertility and the growth of Britain’s population than to treat infertility. Treating infertility was seen as experimental research rather than as therapeutic.
  • Concerns about embryo quality (would babies be born with severe abnormalities?) and patient safety made the referees doubt the wisdom of funding embryo transfer without conducting studies in primates first.
  • Edwards’ and Steptoe’s high profile in the media antagonised the referees who strongly disapproved of this method of public discussion of the science and ethics of treating infertility.

Edwards and Steptoe vividly describe in their 1980 book1 the story of how they rose above this setback and successfully saw the first baby born following IVF. My favourite part of that book is Edwards’ description of his time at Mill Hill, in particular this bit:

First, I had to check the scientific literature to set the background. Upstairs in the Mill Hill Institute there is a very spacious, comprehensive library. I sat there amongst the polished tables reading the journals hour after hour. One morning in the quiet of that comfortable library, as I read one particular paper I stopped reading and said quietly, ‘Sod it’. I looked up. Nobody had heard me. Nobody in the library at that particular moment was aware of my sudden disappointment. For I had just learned that my discovery was not new.

Of course times have changed and as everyone now reads papers from the comfort of their desktop/iPhone/iPad, I no longer hear a chorus of ‘sod it’ and ‘Eureka!’ coming from the library.
A press release, plus coverage in The Independent give details if you can’t access the article itself2.

1 Robert Edwards & Patrick Steptoe, A matter of life, the story of a medical breakthrough, Hutchinson, 1980.

2 Martin H. Johnson, Sarah B. Franklin, Matthew Cottingham and Nick Hopwood. (2010) Why the Medical Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research on human conception in 1971. Human Reproduction, epub ahead of print doi:10.1093/humrep/deq155.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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5 Responses to Looking at an old funding decision

  1. Cath Ennis says:

    So are you saying that bad grant reviews should be carefully preserved for posterity, rather than being angrily crumpled and thrown into the nearest garbage receptacle?
    I don’t think I’ve ever exclaimed “sod it” or “Eureka!” in a library, but I did once have a stand-up yelling match with my PhD supervisor in a library…

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Cath – if you want to be able to write your own account, then yes you should hold onto that letter. Steptoe and Edwards’ book came out in 1980, just 9 years after that rejection and two years after the birth of the first IVF baby.
    But even if you do cast the letter into the WPB, there will be another copy. The authors of this article consulted the MRC archives, held at the National Archives in Kew, as well as various personal and other archives.
    As for for your yelling match, I feel I have to say “Sssshhhh!”.

  3. Cath Ennis says:

    He started it!
    The librarian was the only other person in the library at the time, and when we were done she brought me a cup of tea and some sympathy 🙂

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    At school I once uttered an unstiflable snort in the library when, in the book I was reading, I came across the mathematical conundrum that is the Hairy Ball Theorem.
    I kid you not.
    By the way – that is a fascinating article Frank.

  5. Frank Norman says:

    @Stephen – from IVF to hairy balls in four comments! Yes, I thought it was fascinating. I can imagine the amount of work it took to pore over files and files of correspondence and minutes to piece together the background. I think it would be interesting to do some quantitative work on old funding decisions, if the detail is still there in the files.
    @Cath – well, I’d be happy to provide sympathy but I don’t think you’d like my licorice tea.

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