Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


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 College London.

  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 grants—as 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

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