Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor John Bell, University of Oxford

  The Medical Research Council has an important challenge in determining the future of NIMR as it represents the single largest recurrent expenditure for the MRC and, with the change in Director and the possibility of undertaking significant capital structure investment to bring it up to date, it is an appropriate time to consider the strategic issues associated with MRC investment now and in the future.

  In considering the likely demands on MRC strategic investment over the next 10 to 20 years, it is important to recognise that the wealth of information emerging from basic science over the last 20 years has yet to be applied successfully for the benefit of human disease. There appears now an opportunity to use the technologies developed in basic science to address some of these issues and, internationally, the focus is increasingly on the relevance of basic research rather than basic research for its own sake. It is unlikely that the MRC will move in any other direction over the next 20 years. This should not, however, polarise a view about different types of biomedical science. There are no clearly defined borders between basic, translational and clinical research. They all relate importantly to each other and it is this connectivity which will be important in any model for the future of NIMR.

  The central question that the Science and Technology Committee are considering relates to the size, shape and location of this national institute. The NIMR in its current location has several considerable strengths. It has substantial space in which to develop and grow and has perhaps the best animal facility in the UK. It is clearly limited, however, by the lack of access to the major physical sciences (physics, chemistry and engineering) and the lack of a major teaching hospital with clinical and translational research associated with it. Despite these substantial barriers, NIMR has succeeded in undertaking some important translational research. For example, the Director's programme on influenza is in every sense translational and of major relevance to human health. The issue is not, therefore, whether NIMR has succeeded in achieving some of the goals necessary for a National Institute for Medical Research, but whether it is optimally positioned or whether it could be considerably more successful if it was relocated.

  My judgement is that the likelihood of improving the relevance of research activities at Mill Hill and using their basic science strengths to drive excellent translational work would be greatly improved by proximity to a major university teaching hospital. The Institute, for example, has had a very poor record in training clinician scientists which must be a major goal for all MRC functions in the future. There is little doubt that the distance for NIMR from academic teaching hospitals has made this job much more difficult.

  It is formally possible that this National Institute could achieve this goal if it remained in its current location. I agree, however, with the conclusions of the MRC Taskforce that, if one is looking strategically over the next 20 to 30 years, the current geographical location is by no means ideal and co-location with other sciences would greatly enhance the performance of the Institution. One could tolerate a wide range of options here and much will depend on what resource the MRC is able to spend both on relocation and recurrent running expenses. I hope these comments are helpful.

25 November 2004

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