More than 1000 Medical Research Council (MRC) scientists are to see healthy increases in their salaries over the next 3 years. The pay raise, 3% a year for the next three years, applies to all staff, from postdocs to directors, in the MRC's units and institutes, and it will be on top of the cost-of-living award, which in 2000 is worth 3.8%. The MRC is not receiving extra money to fund the pay award; instead, it will take the extra cash from its general pot.

University science faculties have recently blamed poor salaries for their reported difficulties in attracting high-quality staff. Although the MRC has not experienced such difficulties recruiting to its 40-plus units and institutes, a spokesperson for the MRC told Next Wave that the council is nevertheless concerned that its salaries are uncompetitive. To address the problem, the MRC has taken out an "insurance policy." By raising salaries now, the MRC spokesperson explained, "we're trying to ensure that a few years down the line we're not losing staff."

Currently, the minimum salary for a new MRC postdoc is £20,000. This year's increase will take this to £21,360, with further raises of 3% plus cost of living guaranteed in 2001 and 2002. The increment applies across all research staff pay scales. But postdocs employed on MRC grants in universities are not so fortunate. They have to negotiate their salary point on the national academic pay scale with their employer--the university--and the starting salary for a postdoc in the pre-1992 sector can be as low as £16,775. The pay raise brings MRC staff closer to the salaries enjoyed by biomedical researchers employed on Wellcome Trust grants. The trust has a policy of paying research assistants a premium of 30% on top of their appropriate point on the national pay scale.

The additional money needed to fund the salary increases, estimated at around £1 million in the first year alone, is to come out of the MRC's existing budget, currently £340 million per year. It doesn't take a genius to work out this means less money for other things--like project grants. The money will have to be diverted from the MRC's other activities. But it's a case of 'needs must'. The spokesperson assured Next Wave that the council will be able to meet all its existing commitments, but she pointed out that "if we haven't got the scientists we can't do the science."

The pay raise is long overdue, says John Morrow, a biomedical researcher at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry. "The public sector has been under-rewarded for far too long," Morrow tells Next Wave. Though £1 million sounds like a lot of money, "it will do more for morale than the relatively small amount lost from the total budget," he says, "And it's better to keep the staff that you've got by paying competitive salaries rather than losing them to industry or America."