Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


119. We have taken a hard look at how MRC has handled the process of reviewing the future of NIMR. We have also followed up some concerns we have encountered about the way in which NIMR staff have responded to, and engaged with, the process.

120. We have already discussed the level of engagement in the FIS review by NIMR staff and the influence of senior management there on the Task Force process. We are aware from this inquiry and from earlier representations made to us that the proposals surrounding NIMR's future have caused great unrest there and have occupied a considerable amount of staff energy and time. It is natural for staff in any organisation facing major change and potential relocation to be concerned and to question the case for change. It is reasonable for them to argue strongly against the proposals if they do not see their merit but not reasonable to obstruct or interfere with the process itself.

121. We have received a large number of submissions from scientists around the world, many of whom have experience of working at Mill Hill, praising the status and work of the institute and questioning the need for change.[250] We recognise that NIMR staff may have been proactive in mobilising former colleagues and collaborators to support their opposition to the proposals, but the fact that they have responded in such numbers gives some indication as to both the quality of the science at Mill Hill and the high regard in which it is held by so many senior scientists who have worked there.

122. Written evidence we have received from staff at NIMR suggests a strong engagement with the process. Scientists there told us that they were not against a move to London in principle, but had yet to be persuaded by the evidence that it would necessarily be more advantageous than the further development of the Mill Hill. They expressed concern that any move might damage a national asset and adversely affect the career prospects of many young researchers.[251] We have already commented upon the professional and objective way in which the two NIMR members of the Task Force engaged in and contributed to its work; and noted that they were part of the consensus established until after the final meeting.

123. Any criticism of the NIMR campaign seems to centre upon the attitude and actions of senior NIMR staff. Professor Denton refers to the "apparently extremely negative attitude of many senior staff within NIMR".[252] It is clear from the email correspondence and his evidence to us, some of it in confidence, that Professor Blakemore shares this view. At one point in the email correspondence, Professor Blakemore refers to the "dirty campaign" of Sir John Skehel against the proposed move.[253] He refers to the "apparently uncompromising stance of Sir John Skehel and NIMR senior staff" when he initially visited NIMR and noted the "unwillingness of Sir John and senior staff to engage with the MRC".[254] We have certainly seen that Sir John has been resolute in his defence of what he sees as the best option—the retention of the Mill Hill site for NIMR. We have also referred to the inflammatory language used in postings on the website by NIMR Heads of Division and the personal accusations made against Professor Blakemore.[255] These responses were unnecessarily aggressive and served to poison an already strained relationship with the MRC Chief Executive.

124. We have also found two specific instances that could be used to support a claim that the NIMR campaign against a move was in some way obstructive or amounted to an attempt to interfere with the process. The publication by NIMR of a "Publication Highlights 2000-04" booklet, a few days before the launch by the Task Force of the open consultation exercise was viewed by MRC as a deliberate attempt to influence the consultation exercise by appearing to link the Task Force's long term review of NIMR with a review of the quality of science at NIMR. This link was explicitly made in the foreword to the booklet. [256] We do not know how widely the booklet was circulated but in the evidence we received from around the world there was often an implicit and mistaken impression that the quality of science at Mill Hill was in question.

125. It is apparent from the email correspondence that the publication of the booklet at this time was the subject of considerable discussion in the Task Force about how best to respond.[257] When asked in evidence about this publication, Sir John told the Committee that the timing was coincidental and that it was related to the current quinquennial review.[258] This was the first such booklet produced for a quinquennial review. We are surprised that NIMR thought it necessary to produce such a booklet for a quinquennial review as the information it contained would anyway have been available to the reviewers. We conclude that the publication of the booklet setting out the work being done at NIMR served to align the work of the Task Force with an assessment of the quality of the science at NIMR.

126. The second example of the lengths to which NIMR management went in opposing the proposals relates to efforts to engage the media on the issue of the proposed move. In response to our questions in oral evidence, Dr Lovell-Badge told us that he had had an "informal chat" with the Director of the Science Media Centre, Fiona Fox, whom he knew very well, following the publication of FIS proposals. He also said that "we never asked her to help us".[259] Sir John Skehel told us that he was not involved and "did not know what was going on".[260] Professor Blakemore took issue with this account of the meeting, on the basis of his conversation with Fiona Fox. He reports that Fiona Fox was expecting an informal tour of the facilities but was shocked to instead be questioned by 15 senior scientists about how to organise a media campaign against MRC. She "declined an invitation" to advise NIMR on its PR campaign and reported the encounter to the MRC press office.

127. We invited Fiona Fox to submit evidence on the meeting concerned. She told us that she visited NIMR in response to a long standing invitation and was taken to a meeting with 10-15 Heads of Department. She said "they [NIMR staff present] certainly did ask my advice about the media interest in this story and explained that they had been approached by several media outlets for interviews and comment. I gave bits and pieces of advice—which is what I do—but did say that the SMC was good friends with the MRC press office and I didn't feel I could in any way become an adviser on this issue …".[261] She said that there "was no attempt to persuade me to play that role" and advised them to appoint a press officer if they needed long term advice and did not feel that they could use the MRC press office.[262] She subsequently told the MRC press office about the meeting and heard no more about it. Although Fiona Fox did not specify whether or not she was asked to be an adviser, she clearly thought it necessary to tell the MRC press office of the meeting after it had taken place. It seems to us that this meeting was more than the "informal chat" that Dr Lovell-Badge sought to imply.

Conclusion on NIMR campaign

128. In conclusion, we can understand the almost instinctive reaction of employees in resisting a perceived threat in proposals for change. We have also referred to the adverse impact on NIMR staff of the way that he initial FIS proposals were handled. We believe that most staff at NIMR did respond to the admirable efforts of MRC to engage them in the Task Force process and in particular have praised the way in which the two NIMR members of the Task Force contributed. However, we believe that many senior NIMR staff were more intent upon resistance than engaging with the process and too willing to characterise conclusions and intentions of the majority of the Task Force as evidence of the pursuit of a personal agenda by the Chief Executive. Their actions stopped only a little short of serious interference with the process and a deliberate attempt to undermine the position of the Chief Executive of their own organisation.

250   Ev 59, 61, 65, 75, 122 Back

251   Ev 92 Back

252   Ev 170 Back

253   Ev 236, email 166  Back

254   Ev 212 Back

255   See para 85 above. Back

256   NIMR, Publication Highlights 2000-2004 Back

257   Emails not printed; see also Back

258   Q 113 Back

259   Q 110 Back

260   Q 108 Back

261   Ev 222 Back

262   Ev 222 Back

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