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Sustainability and Research: Finding a Balance

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Life science research currently uses huge amounts of energy, chemicals and resources. Laboratories often consume three to 10 times more energy than typical non-laboratory areas of universities. Many institutions are therefore faced with the challenge of improving sustainability while still enabling scientists to conduct high-quality research.

To improve the sustainability of their laboratory practices, the UK-based Medical Research Council (MRC) recently announced membership of the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF). Developed at University College London and piloted in over 230 laboratory groups, this framework offers the MRC a new approach to improve the environmental sustainability of their laboratory work.

To learn more about the MRC’s commitment to sustainability, their transformation to net zero by 2040 and how this can be achieved without impacting research, we spoke to Dr. Susan Simon, MRC Director of Capital and Estates.

Ash Board (AB): The MRC recently announced membership of LEAF. How will this support your transformation to net zero by 2040?


Susan Simon (SS): The MRC is working to meet this challenge by tackling several elements:

  • Estate and facilities: We need to transform our estate and research facilities to a net zero position. This work has only just started with surveys and feasibility studies to understand what can and needs to be done, costs, timelines etc.
  • Operations: This is where our membership of LEAF is hugely beneficial. This element is looking at our research activities in our laboratories. The MRC is admittedly only at the beginning of this journey and requires some guidance and support. LEAF has a framework for our institutes and scientists to focus on operational decisions that will not compromise our research. The LEAF framework provides scientifically validated background to measures that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact. Through LEAF, we can gain valuable knowledge from other participants of the scheme, including universities and independent institutes, on actions they have taken that can make a difference and those that have been unsuccessful and the reasons why.
  • Research: The MRC has launched a research call in collaboration with DHSC, NHS and NERC to find practical solutions to some of the issues that are faced in life science and medical practice. Outputs from this research will be disseminated by the participating organizations. Further work will be undertaken to find appropriate platforms for sharing (including LEAF).
  • Engagement: The MRC is already working with several organizations to gain a better understanding of what the key challenges are and how they can be addressed, etc., and in discussion with scientists within UKRI and the wider research community to push the environmental agenda forward and make it part of the considerations in all aspects of research.


AB: Is this an extension of existing sustainability policies or does it indicate a change in the way the MRC approach sustainability?


SS: The challenge of achieving a net zero position by 2040 is immense and the MRC establishes a formal program with workstreams (see above) to achieve this. As such, the decision to sign up for LEAF is not a policy decision, but an agreement amongst the institutes to use this framework to start this work in laboratory operations. We feel strongly that we need to look at all our activities in relation to environmental sustainability.


AB: What are the reasons for the MRC joining LEAF over other sustainability programs?


SS: The MRC is aware of other frameworks but focused on LEAF as we felt that it is the most suitable for our current needs. The MRC’s London Institute of Medical Sciences is already a LEAF member and supported our decision with their practical experience of the scheme and its suitability for the different facilities we have and their specific needs and activities.


AB: How many MRC laboratories will this framework be applied to? What are the challenges of rolling out such an initiative at this scale?


SS: The institutes/units that have signed up are:

  •  MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
  • MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences
  • MRC Harwell
  • Research Complex at Harwell


We are also pleased to note that the Francis Crick Institute - an MRC partnership institute - is in the process of completing their LEAF membership.

Each of these institutions work on different research and disciplines, using different methods and have different operational management. It was therefore difficult to find something that can cater for these differences and set out a path for each facility and organization that will contribute to the overarching goal in 2040.


We are in the process of having structured engagement with all our MRC partnership institutes and long-term investments to progress the sustainability work across the entirety of our work.


AB: Do you believe that sustainability can be achieved without impacting the quality of your research? 


SS: The MRC’s mission is to improve human health, and a healthy environment is a great contributor to human health. Ultimately, our research activities should be in a position where there is no detrimental impact on the environment. From our current understanding of available technologies and products/services on the market, this perfect condition is currently not achievable. However, the aim is to reduce the impact of our research on the environment, and we believe that these improvements are very significant and will not impact the quality of our research. However, none of these improvements will be instant and some will require a change in how we conduct research and the research culture itself.


The MRC are committed to our research activities and strongly believe that they need to be continued in a safe manner that produce valid results, that can be translated into medicines, treatments and other interventions. The MRC will be working hard to minimize the impact of our activities on the environment.


Dr. Susan Simon was speaking to Dr. Ash Board, Editorial Director at Technology Networks.