The Medical Research Council: Overview

April 6, 2005

Prof Anthony D MBewu

Interim President

Medical Research Council

Corporate Governance of the MRC

The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a Statutory Science Council, founded by Act of Parliament 36 years ago. It reports to the Minister of Health and its budget comes from the National Department of Health (NDOH).

The MRC’s strategy, businessplan, research priorities, budget and performance management are all agreed upon with the NDOH; and the MRC Board and Board Chairperson are appointed by the Minister of Health. The Annual Report of the MRC is presented to Parliament by the Minister of Health.

MRC Vision and Mission

The vision of the MRC is:

Building a healthy nation through research

The provision of good health is essential to building a healthy nation, and research is the

cornerstone of health care.

The MRC's task is to improve the health of the population of South Africa through excellent

scientific research. Health, development, economic growth and the well-being of the nation are closely linked.

The Mission of the MRC is:

To improve the nation's health status and quality of life through relevant and excellent health

research aimed at promoting equity and development.

MRC Strategy

In order to deliver on its mandate the MRC works hard to strengthen its stakeholder base and to engage with key stakeholders, such as the National Department of Health, and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health.

This is because research itself makes no difference to health unless its results are translated into:

  1. health policy formulation – by the Ministry of Health, the National Department of Health and by Parliament
  2. health practice – by health professionals such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists
  3. health promotion – by the general public in terms of healthy choices, healthy environments and healthy behaviours
  4. health products – such as new drugs, vaccines and natural medicines


MRC Businessplan

Following from the MRC Strategy, the MRC Business Plan for 2005/6 lists the following priorities:

MRC Values

The MRC endeavours to entrench the following shared values in the organisation through a process of organisational change:

Transparency and open communication

Freedom to challenge


Teamwork/leadership / participation



Honesty/fairness and integrity


Reward and recognition

Capacity development

Research Portfolio

The MRC has clustered its research into 6 National Research Programmes that reflect the health priorities of the nation:

  1. Environment and development
  2. Health systems and policy
  3. Infection and immunity
  4. Molecules to disease
  5. Non-communicable diseases
  6. Women and child health
  7. Each of the MRC’s National Programmes is made up of various research units and lead programmes focusing on specific issues.

    In carrying out this research the MRC also focuses on:

  8. Ethics and human rights
  9. Capacity development
  10. Health promotion
  11. Culture and indigenous knowledge
  12. Information and knowledge management
  13. Intellectual property

How does the MRC work?

The MRC conducts and supports research on its own or with experienced partners such as universities and scientific institutions. The MRC's teams network with health policy-makers, other researchers and stakeholders in research such as universities and universities of technology, as well as with the wider research community. The main objective is to produce science that results in improved health. The research portfolio is based on the health priorities of South Africa.

Currently the MRC funds 500 scientists and 300 technologists (half of them directly employed by the MRC) within its 48 units, centres, groups and lead programmes; assisted by 300 support staff. These researchers are currently involved with approximately 500 research projects generating 500 peer reviewed publications a year; and over 100 technical reports and policy briefs. The MRC also funds an additional 200+ individual researchers engaged in 3-year research projects, generating approximately 100 papers per year.

77% of the global MRC budget is spent on research and developing scientists. Most of the rest goes on the services and systems that keep the MRC and its research running effectively.

Government provides half the budget of the MRC (R180 million of the total R350 million) through the National Department of Health; whilst the rest is derived from external contracts and grants.

The Six MRC National Programmes

Environment and development

Alcohol & Drug Abuse Research Unit

Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research Unit

Health & Development Research Group

Health Promotion Research & Development Group

Environmental and Occupational Health Research Group

Health systems and policy

Burden of Disease Research Unit

Biostatistics Unit

Cochrane Centre

Health Policy Research Group

Health Systems Research Unit

National Telemedicine Lead Programme

Infection and immunity

HIV and AIDS Research Lead Programme

HIV Prevention and Vaccine Research Unit

South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI)

Clinical and Biomedical Tuberculosis Research Unit

Operational and Policy Tuberculosis Research Group

Tuberculosis Research Lead Programme

Diarrhoeal Pathogens Research Unit

Genital Ulcer Disease Research Unit

Immunology of Infectious Disease Research Unit

Inflammation and Immunity Research Unit

Malaria Research Lead Programme

Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit

Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lead Programme

South African Traditional Medicines Research Unit

Molecules to disease

Bioinformatics Capacity Development Research Unit

Bone Research Unit

Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology

Human Genetics Research Unit

Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit

Liver Research Centre

Molecular Hepatology Research Unit

Molecular Mycobacteriology Research Unit

Oesophageal Cancer Research Group

South African MRC/British MRC Receptor Biology Research Group

Non-communicable diseases

Anxiety and Stress Disorders Research Unit

Cancer Epidemiology Research Group

Chronic Diseases of Lifestyle Research Unit

Crime, Violence and Injury Lead Programme

Diabetes Research Group

Interuniversity Cape Heart Research Group

Medical Imaging Research Unit


Women and child health

Gender and Health Research Group

Maternal and Infant Health Care Strategies Research Unit

Mineral Metabolism Research Unit

Nutrition Intervention Research Unit

Activities across the MRC

Apart from the National Programmes, the MRC carries out many ‘corporate’ functions. These are organised into the following Directorates:

• Technology and Business Development

• Informatics and Knowledge Management

• Corporate Communications

• Human resources and Organisational development

• Finance and Operations