Memorandum from Dr Hazel Dockrell, London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
I write to express my concern about the decision
process and reasons for the proposed move to NIMR from Mill Hill
to a central London site, as part of King's College or University
NIMR is a special and unique institution. In
my former work on malaria and my current research on tuberculosis
and leprosy, I have collaborated with scientists at NIMR, as have
many members of my Department. In September this year, I had the
opportunity to review the work of the Virology, Parasitology and
Mycobacteriology Divisions at NIMR during a site visit/review
as a member of the Medical Research Council's new Infection and
Immunity Board. This review confirmed my view that the research
performed at NIMR is world class, that this research exploits
and requires the breadth of disciplines within the institute,
and that the animal facilities are a unique resource for UK scientists.
I have followed the progress of the discussion
about NIMR's future with great interest, but am still unclear
as to the main motive for the proposed move. NIMR is only about
40 minutes away from, say UCL at present, and I do not consider
its location a problem or a limitation to interactions with NIMR.
Should NIMR relocate to King's or UCL, I doubt that our interactions
with its scientists will increase much. I have not sent the plans
for a move to King's, but relocation to the National Temperance
Hospital site at UCL would put the new NIMR about as far from
UCL as we are currently from UCL. That is close enough to attend
a special seminar, but not a routine one, and definitely not close
enough for NIMR scientists to benefit from a clinical environment.
If the aim is to integrate NIMR scientists more closely with those
scientists and clinicians working in the university sector in
London, this could be achieved through the funding of joint PhD
studentships, joint grants etc.
NIMR is in essence a research institute that
specialises in fundamental research on medically important topics.
Some of the research is clinically related and some is designed
to lead to new drug design, or new vaccines. The UK needs excellence
in both fundamental research and in clinical research; discoveries
in one can lead to breakthroughs in the other. I myself doubt
that relocating NIMR in a building with some other research groups
will lead to more translational research or more patentable discoveries.
There may well be a case for a greater focus on translational
and clinical research in the UK, but this could be achieved by
strategic funding initiatives, rather than by changing the focus
and shape of NIMR. In particular, as a non-clinician with an academic
career in medical research, I find the suggestion that the proportion
of clinicians doing research at NIMR should be greatly increased
curious; it is certainly a good idea for researchers to understand
the disease they work on, but why not offer a smaller number of
clinical scientist fellowships at NIMR?
A great strength of NIMR has been its extensive
and excellent animal facilities. Many UK scientists envy the access
NIMR scientists have to this unique resource. I have heard many
concerns expressed that to relocate such a large facility into
central London would be difficult if not impossible. I consider
that for efficient working, such facilities need to be on-site
and for work with infectious agents this becomes even more critical;
for example, tissues or samples contaminated with a Category 3
pathogen such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis cannot be easily transported
from one site to another.
The original suggestion that NIMR should be
relocated to Cambridge was not supported by the scientific community
in London, or by most of those at NIMR. A move to central London
would benefit the institution that would house NIMR, and should
not adversely affect the NIMR scientists, especially if spectacular
new facilities and space to house all the existing groups and
perhaps new groups too, were to be provided. NIMR's special atmosphere
would be altered but its scientists' ability to carry out world-class
research without the need to spend a significant proportion of
their time raising grants, or teaching should not be affected.
But a NIMR move to central London would be very expensive, and
I would not want to see this expenditure remove money from the
funding of research grantsas it is, too many excellent
and highly scored medical research applications cannot be funded
by the MRC. These discussions on NIMR's future are meanwhile having
a very adverse effect on morale at NIMR and there is a real danger
the UK may lose many outstanding scientists as a result. And why
has no one explained why it does not seem to be an option to retain
NIMR at Mill Hill?
23 November 2004