Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Chris Higgins, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre

  1.  As Director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC), one of the three MRC Research Institutes alongside NIMR and The Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, my personal perspective may be useful in your deliberations.


  2.  As MRC employees, all Unit/Institute Directors expect the MRC to review their establishments regularly, both for research quality and for strategic priority. A particularly thorough strategic review of any major Institute would be expected immediately preceding the retirement of its Director or when substantial capital expenditure is likely to be required.

  3.  The current strategic review of NIMR is appropriately separate from the quinquennial reviews of research quality, and has used different review bodies. Thus, although some might take issue with details of the process, the ongoing strategic review of NIMR by the MRC is entirely appropriate and is to be welcomed.


  4.  Independent scientific reviews have concluded that many of the NIMR research teams are at the international forefront. It is therefore important for the UK that this expertise is retained. I know from personal discussions that many NIMR scientists will move overseas (many are receiving generous offers) if relocated outside London or if NIMR is disbanded.

  5.  London offers the only location in the UK where there is sufficient critical mass of clinical research excellence across the board, and a sufficiently large patient base, for all the scientific Divisions of NIMR to enhance critical mass and clinical links.

  6.  I therefore concur with the MRC conclusion that NIMR science should be renewed in some form in London.


  7.  Achievements in basic research over the past 50 years (many of which have been MRC-supported) now provide a significant knowledge base. The MRC has both the opportunity and obligation to exploit this knowledge base to enhance clinical research and deliver healthcare benefit. I therefore strongly endorse the proposed change in the strategic mission of NIMR, which calls for enhanced clinical and translation research alongside the existing strengths in basic research.

  8.  Based on my experience as an MRC Director implementing a similar mission, I have no doubt that the renewed mission for NIMR cannot be effectively delivered by status quo, or by "appending" a few clinicians to the existing Institute. It has been amply demonstrated that translation of biomedical research progresses most effectively through iterative interactions between clinical and basic scientists working closely together as a mix of equals, sharing laboratories, ideas and opportunities, and understanding each others "culture". This is the model being adopted in leading Centres in the US. This model also enhances the quality of basic research which benefits substantially from ideas derived from patient-based research. As clinical research cannot be pursued effectively away from a strong patient base, and there is no prospect of a patient base at Mill Hill, if the proposed mission for a renewed NIMR is adopted there is no option but that NIMR basic research should be relocated.

  9.  In the above context it is important to recognise that the renewed mission for NIMR will not be delivered simply by relocating MRC scientists to a new building close to an academic hospital unless:

    (i)  the research strengths and patient base at that hospital/institution complement the research strengths of the basic science, and the Institution also brings additional and essential strengths in increasingly critical areas such as chemistry, physics bioengineering and computing; and

    (ii)  the Institute is fully embedded in the host Institution with appropriate joint governance enabling joint research strategy and appointments, shared facilities and coffee rooms, co-investment and integrated laboratories. A free-standing, self-governing building, even on a hospital campus, will not realise the proposed new mission—a few metres can be as isolating as a many miles.


  10.  If the UK is to continue to compete at the international forefront of biomedical research, NIMR science should not be considered in isolation. Despite its influential past and the international standing of many NIMR scientists, the interdisciplinary nature of modern biomedical research, the need to effectively link to clinical practice, and the increasing role of "big" science and expensive facilities, require that a "National Institute for Medical Research" is more than a relatively small and isolated Institute with limited clinical or medical infrastructure. NIMR is, after all, only around 5% of MRC activity and very small compared with the NIH campus in the USA.

  11.  In my view it would be a missed opportunity if, in renewing NIMR, the UK did not "think big" and take the opportunity to establish a true "National Institute" which can compete internationally in the modern world.

  12.  No single Institution in London (or elsewhere in the UK) offers the range of scientific expertise (including physical sciences and engineering), clinical research excellence, and patient base to fully complement and strengthen all the Divisions of NIMR. Thus, in my opinion, scientific advantage would best be achieved by embedding individual Divisions of NIMR at the three or four distinct locations in London which best complement the Divisional research strengths. This would provide new opportunities for both NIMR scientists and cognate University researchers. A robust, overarching Governance and Management could ensure effective co-ordination of the research of these Divisions of the Institute.

  13.  Additionally, it is sometimes forgotten that there are other MRC activities in London whose research also complements a renewed NIMR and, in sum, are more-or-less equivalent in size and activity to NIMR. These include my Institute (the CSC at Imperial) and the MRC Clinical Trials Unit and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology at UCL. The renewal and relocation of NIMR offers a unique opportunity to co-ordinate all of these MRC activities with those of NIMR under an overarching governance "umbrella", for example as Divisions of a new and much stronger Research Institute.

  14.  Co-ordination of the MRC intramural programmes across London would also serve to strengthen effective links between the MRC the developing NHS Clinical Research Collaboration.

  In conclusion, I personally believe that the proposed renewal of NIMR, if distributed across three or four sites in London, provides a unique opportunity to develop a research Institute for the 20th century. Co-ordination of all relevant MRC activities, the NHS CRC, and the consequent co-operation and collaboration between more than one leading academic Institution, could put in place a research base which can truly compete on the world stage—a true National Institute.

23 November 2004

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