Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


129. The debate over the future of NIMR has polarised opinion to a remarkable degree. The way the debate has been framed has encouraged people to take a view either for or against Mill Hill. This partisan approach has been extremely damaging to attempts by MRC to engage NIMR in the decision making process. In reality, as the Task Force has proved, there is a good degree of consensus on the most favourable future for NIMR. Protests have intensified as the prospect of change has appeared to draw closer. Indeed, an impression has emerged in some quarters that NIMR at Mill Hill will suddenly close. In reality, the transitional process of a move to London would take around a decade. Whilst it is essential to deal with the present, the medium and long term focus of the current review should not be forgotten.

130. The Task Force was successful in establishing consensus on the most favourable scenario for NIMR in a central London university hospital site, provided that the chosen host could offer the facilities and governance arrangements that compared favourably with Mill Hill and would create an environment for successful translational research. The Task Force was primarily concerned with the principle of co-location in London. It was not able to establish—because the details of the proposals were still being developed—whether this ideal scenario is likely to be achievable in practice and if it would represent value for money compared to the maintenance and development of the existing institute. These factors will depend upon the detailed business cases worked up by the preferred bidder and the availability of funding from OST, and possibly other sources. An MRC subcommittee is currently considering in further detail the proposals of the two bidders and expects to report back to the MRC Council meeting on 9-10 February 2005, when a preferred bidder may be selected.

131. We have argued that the mechanisms that MRC has used to reach this stage have proved less than ideal, but the shortcomings of process were not so serious as to invalidate the outcome. They should certainly not be used to deflect attention from the task in hand. Too much work has been done and too much has been agreed for it to make any sense to start the review process all over again from square one. A new third process would prolong the uncertainty and would not be guaranteed to reach a conclusion that was acceptable to all sides. Tough decisions cannot be avoided indefinitely. The question now for MRC is how best to take those decisions and then implement them.

132. The proposed move to London is, as the Task Force agreed, an attractive one in principle. Any move of this nature carries its own risks. A research institute cannot be successfully uprooted and replanted elsewhere without taking into account a range of other factors. The right leadership, governance arrangements and scientific match are all important in attracting the right people and developing the right culture to ensure that the co-located institute thrives in its new environment and develops the links that will achieve the goals of its new mission. Equally, MRC must be satisfied that the long term funding required to support the renewed institute in central London is likely to give a scientific return that exceeds that of the Mill Hill alternative. No less important is the need to ensure that any transition process does not do irreparable damage to the science being conducted at the institute. This is of course a decision for the long term, but it would nonetheless be a regrettable blow to UK medical science if significant numbers of internationally highly regarded Mill Hill scientists were to look elsewhere to continue their careers.

133. We believe that MRC should only begin the process of transition when it is fully satisfied that the partnership being offered by the preferred bidder is highly likely to be able to match the ideal identified by the Task Force. It should not, in its enthusiasm to embrace the new vision, be prepared to settle for an option that does not exceed the current quality of the research facilities and environment at Mill Hill. This has already been a long process and it is in everyone's interests to clarify the long term future of NIMR. The advantage MRC has is that there is no compulsion for an early move. The buildings at Mill Hill will not fall apart in the near future.

134. The main time constraints cited are the need to avoid further destabilising the institute and the need to have its future determined in time to begin the process of recruiting a successor to the current Director, a process which needs to start, according to the Chief Executive, in summer 2005.[263] We are also aware that the two London bidders would like a swift decision in order to facilitate forward planning. We recognise the importance of minimising uncertainty and re-establishing some stability, but the overriding consideration for the long term must be to get the right decision on location for UK medical science. Finding the right Director and meeting the desires of potential bidders are important but secondary considerations.

135. If neither of the two London options meets MRC's requirements the question remains as to what happens then. MRC's position is that "all options" will be considered. We assume that this includes the Mill Hill option, although MRC has been noticeably unwilling to confirm exactly what these other options include.[264] We believe that, having got this far, MRC should not give up too easily on the unanimous preference of the Task Force for a renewed national institute in the London area. If this ideal scenario appears likely to be achievable in the near future, MRC should strive hard to establish the right partnership arrangements in London. If not, we would support MRC's commitment to re-examine all the options for the future of NIMR.

263   Ev 219 Back

264   Qs 37-40; Ev 172 Back

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