Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, former member of the MRC Task Force on the NIMR

  1.  As one of the NIMR representatives on the Task Force, I would first like to give some of my overall impressions of the process before specifically addressing, from my own perspective, some of the questions supplied to the MRC by the Select Committee. (N.B. my colleague Steve Gamblin has largely focussed on a separate set of questions, so I have avoided answering these so as not to duplicate our responses, but I should state that we are entirely in agreement.) Many of my views have been expressed previously in e-mail correspondence with the Task Force Chairman, Colin Blakemore (CB), in particular in two messages I sent on 22 and 26 July 2004, after the TF had essentially concluded its business and before the MRC Council Meeting that was to look at its final report. These e-mails were circulated to the Task Force, and, according to CB's wish for openness and transparency, were marked non-confidential. However, despite two requests, they have not been made public and, in a recent letter (11 November 2004), David Smith, the TF Secretariat, has written to me to say that he will not do so. I attach these messages and others as supporting evidence for my position. I would ask that the Select Committee gives due consideration to the appropriateness of this material being made publicly available, although I still have no reservations. I particularly encourage you to read my message of 26 July, which is the last I include in the accompanying attachment.

  2.  I have worked at the NIMR since 1988, and have been Head of the Division of Developmental Genetics since 1993. I am therefore very familiar with the Institute, its advantages and disadvantages. I have always felt privileged to work there and it has enabled me to make significant progress in my science. For this reason I was enthusiastic to be part of the Task Force, which had the specific remit of exploring ways of securing the future success of the Institute. It was my wish that we would be able to put forward sound ideas to enhance its ability to nurture good science and scientists and to play an even greater National role in the future. To make something the UK could really be proud of. I believe this was also the goal of at least some of our international colleagues on the TF, but perhaps we were all naive.

  3.  I have ended up being extremely disappointed both with the process and with the outcome. Important issues were frequently glossed over or not discussed at all and, in too many instances, prejudice and hidden agendas have taken precedence over evidence as means to reach conclusions. Despite public statements to the contrary, there was in the end little unanimity on critical issues. Moreover, the final TF report was submitted to Council without several members of the TF having even seen information that was only forthcoming in the last few days before its completion. As the report did not adequately reflect my views, the appearance of unanimity being more important to the Chairman than reality, it was also submitted without my approval. Council have then based their decisions on a document and a process that falls well below my ideals and those I believe they should demand. There is no logic in having the Mill Hill site as a comparator, without it being a formal option for the future location of the Institute. There is now a real danger that Council will pursue a decision that will have a long-lasting deleterious effect on UK biomedical research.


Please refer to Appendix 61 for Questions.

  4.  Question 1. There have been similar, at least spoken, trends in other countries, to push towards more translational research. In the USA, this has coincided with a change in Director of the NIH from Varmus, a basic scientist, to Zerhouni, a clinician. Of course the former managed to double the baseline NIH budget, perhaps leaving the latter with little room for manoeuvre. (In fact Zerhouni has only allocated a very small percentage of the NIH budget to clinical/translational initiatives.) It is often stated that it is a good time to start translating all the basic knowledge we have uncovered over the past decades into real clinical benefit. However, this ignores the fact that we are still so ignorant, and that it is an even better time to do basic research, a time when we can build on the really important breakthroughs made in recent years and gain real understanding. The cynical view is that many feel it is easier to persuade politicians to give money for "curing diseases" than it is to merely provide knowledge. Of course we should also pursue translational research, but not at the expense of the foundations on which its future, and ours, will depend. This view was in fact supported by most of the Task Force. It was felt that the Institute should take on a greater role in facilitating translational research, for example through training clinician scientists in research methods, and by having more clinician scientists on staff, but that it would be counterproductive to lose the excellent basic science as this provides the necessary foundation to do the former. However, this view has become distorted by statements issued subsequently—perhaps as a justification for wanting to relocate the Institute to a clinical setting.

  5.  The various consultations conducted on behalf of the TF asked the question about the balance of basic versus translational research. However, the views of many were ignored, including clinician scientists working at NIMR, those elsewhere with whom we collaborate, and basic scientists working in more clinical settings.

  6.  Question 2. A greater emphasis on translational research at NIMR would perhaps have only a modest affect relative to the way the overall MRC budget is allocated. However, it could mean the loss of a very critical driver of high quality basic biomedical research in the UK. It may tip the balance too far in a direction from which it would be hard to recover in the future. And why choose the NIMR as the target for this change, rather than other components of its portfolio, notably those already co-located in clinical settings, especially if the latter is felt to be such a persuasive argument ? Or why not plan a new, additional venture rather than put at risk an internationally competitive and highly renowned institute ?

  7.  Question 3. There was no evidence to suggest that co-location would be of benefit to the work of the Institute. (Indeed, some have tried to justify co-location on the grounds that it may be the other way round—the Institute might help the host institution—even at the risk of damaging its own research.) Many of the best multi-disciplinary research institutes around the world are not co-located, as is also the case for almost all institutes with a national role (NIH in Bethesda, for example). Indeed, the explicit reason the European Molecular Biology Laboratories are not co-located with a university, is to allow them to fulfil their international role.

  8.  Question 5. NIMR was asked to nominate two internal representatives and three external members to the Task Force. Unfortunately, one of the latter, Peter Gruss, became unable in his view to devote sufficient time to TF business and stepped down, but was not replaced. Both Richard Flavell and Paul Nurse devoted considerable time and effort to the TF, despite their very busy schedules. The MRC nominated two Council members, Kay Davies and Dick Denton, the only two scientists on Council that had not been part of the FIS subcommittee, although all had signed up to its recommendations. They also nominated Steve Tomlinson to represent both a clinical and an additional provincial viewpoint, and Alan Bernstein as another international member. George Radda was to begin as Chairman, but a considerable delay in organising the first meeting meant that Colin Blakemore had already taken over as CEO. Despite the obvious conflict, the latter was willing, albeit with stated reluctance, to take on the role of Chairman. John Skehel was meant to attend the meetings, except for occasions when the question of his replacement as NIMR director was to be addressed. He did attend parts of some meetings, although in the end there was very little discussion that would have required his exclusion. Alison Spaull attended as an observer, also nominated by the MRC, and the others present were David Smith from MRC Head Office as the Secretariat, and representatives from McKinsey's, who were employed by the MRC to assist the Task Force.

  9.  There was clearly a wide range of views held by the TF members. Steve Tomlinson admitted to the NIMR staff during his only visit to the Institute in October that his view, when appointed to the TF, was that NIMR should be closed and the funds released should be redistributed around the country. Alan Bernstein, who did not attend in person any meetings of the TF and who by his own admission had not followed all the correspondence or read critical documents, has well known opinions that there is no need for bricks-and-mortar institutes. I do not know if Colin Blakemore had fixed views at the beginning, but he seemed to have started making up his mind already by the third meeting, before we had gathered any real evidence, such as results from consultations, the ARUP report on the Mill Hill site, details of potential sites in central London and their costs, etc. His ideas for a much smaller institute focussed on only a part of the current range of science carried out at NIMR (which appear to go against our final conclusions) were put to me in a `phone conversation and then to the rest of the TF (but only in a confidential e-mail) after I had challenged the ambiguity of the use of the word "focus" in the draft report of the third meeting. These views, and others based on a disregard for facts, have encouraged the view that there were hidden agendas.

  10.  Several methods were used to communicate TF progress to stakeholders. However, not all have been either timely or appropriate. I give just a few examples:

    (i)  The reports from each of the TF meetings were always delayed, as there would be disagreement over the wording, which either failed to reflect decisions reached during the meetings or where it had meanings that were too ambiguous. There were no formal minutes taken.

    (ii)  There have been long delays and only selective publication of e-mail correspondence between TF members, even where messages have been marked non-confidential. Reading the collection on the MRC website gives a very distorted view.

    (iii)  Inappropriate conversations or correspondence by the Chairman with stakeholders, which have given strength to the view that a hidden agenda was being followed.

  Examples, being:

    (a)  a conversation with two young NIMR postdoctoral researchers after the third TF meeting where he told them that he had cancelled a proposed visit to the Institute—before others had been informed—and that he was considering abandoning the TF. (This followed a heated exchange during a TF conference call earlier that day.)

    (b)  Sending out letters on behalf of the TF, or draft reports of the TF meetings without agreement from all members.

    (c)  After the last TF meeting, again prior to the report being finalised, and against the spirit of our agreement at the meeting, informing KCL and UCL that it would be a straight fight between the two of them rather than saying that their bids would be compared with Mill Hill. The report of the Fifth meeting was only released for publication after acceptance of the conditionality of any central London bid and after KCL and UCL were properly informed. However, the Chairman selectively uses phrases from this report, taken out of context and conveniently omitting the conditionality, to pretend that there was unanimity for co-location amongst TF members, when there was not.

  11.  Question 7. Apart from proposals to move the Institute, the Task Force also considered options to break it up into two or more separate locations. Splitting the Institute would have inevitably destroyed its productive culture and multidisciplinary interactions. It was clear from the outset that this would not be attractive to NIMR staff. Consequently, these options received no support from the majority of the Task Force and they were rejected during our Third meeting. The only one present at this meeting who tried to reinstate it was David Smith. However, the split option was subsequently put back on the table by the Chairman. It was argued that this was in response to London HEI's who considered that such an option would be best (from their point of view). In my opinion, it was ridiculous to have the work of the TF sidetracked by external influences. Putting this option back on the table also had consequences for the subsequent work and progress of the TF. It wasted time and effort from the HEI's involved, who could perhaps have better concentrated their efforts on single-site bids. It was clearly never an option that would receive sufficient support from TF members, yet we had to devote a lot of valuable time to discuss it. This includes the final meeting—where we had insufficient time to, for example, debate the proposals from Mill Hill or even whether Mill Hill should be an option. It also served to distort the balance of options under consideration, with too much time devoted to the need to exclude the split site, rather than focusing on the values of an independent versus co-located site.

  12.  There was a suggestion, from Richard Flavell, to hold a sixth TF meeting in an attempt to resolve some of the unfinished business, after Council had made their preliminary decisions. But this did not take place as it was decided that the TF no longer existed.

  13.  Questions 8-10. There was considerable ambiguity throughout the whole TF process as to the nature of any financial constraints. We were at times told that we should not think about them—a good argument can always persuade Government or others to provide the money. At other times it was made very apparent that there could be no increase in recurrent expenditure from the MRC. The latter became of particular concern to me when the details of the costs of running an Institute in central London began to emerge. It would simply not be possible to carry out the same volume of research on the same core funding from the MRC. The co-location options had to be far less cost-effective, especially if there was to be a change in emphasis, with a greater proportion of clinician scientists on the payroll.

  14.  Having looked at all the evidence over the course of the Task Force and subsequently, and being aware of what is possible on the Mill Hill site, I am convinced that remaining there is the best and most exciting option for the future of NIMR. It should certainly not be excluded without a full and proper, unbiased comparison with the central London bids.

23 November 2004

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