Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor James Fawcett, Cambridge University

  I write as an active scientist with some knowledge of NIMR from the inside and a view from the outside. My current position is Chairman of the Cambridge University Centre for Brain Repair, which is partially funded by an MRC cooperative group grant. I was a PhD student at NIMR some years ago, and have visited the Institute and collaborated with one of the scientific divisions over many years.

  1.  NIMR is the largest item of MRC expenditure, and it is clearly correct that its effectiveness and value for money relative to other calls on the MRC, and relative to its title and intended role should be examined. At a time when a substantial proportion of Alpha A- rated programme project and centre applications, of a similar standard to work in NIMR, are turned down, NIMR needs to demonstrate an exceptional level of performance.

  2.  Scientific achievement at NIMR. The level of scientific achievement at NIMR is generally of a high order, as confirmed by the recent review process. The best known groups work in developmental biology and in immunology. There is a good level of collaborative working between most of the groups. The research is almost all at the cellular/molecular level with little interaction with clinical medicine.

  3.  Advantages of keeping NIMR at Mill Hill. The Mill Hill site provides ample space and good facilities. The new animal facilities are large and excellent. Because of the isolated nature of the site, it is possible to maintain tight security. The current faculty mostly works well together, and clearly does not wish the disruption that a move would bring.

  4.  Advantages of closing NIMR. The directly funded budget of NIMR from the MRC is £31 million a year. The total cost is considerably greater. This would fund an extra 100 programme grants in Universities, or 500 project grants. The site has considerable value, and the money released could relocate groups from NIMR and fund new initiatives. The relocation of groups to universities would benefit higher education and university research.

5.  Advantages of relocating NIMR to a central site.

  5.1  Training. The current NIMR is not a good site for training PhD students, and has no contact with undergraduates. Students are isolated from the type of training courses that are run in universities, and from the large student bodies that provide a good learning, training and social environment. Relocation to a site near a major university would improve the training experience of young scientists.

  5.2  Education. At a time when UK universities are struggling to maintain their research base and to maintain educational standards, it is not sensible to remove some of the best scientists from the educational environment and sequestrate them in large isolated institutes. If NIMR were moved to a major university, it would greatly benefit both university education and research.

  5.3  Clincal and translational research. NIMR at present is distant from a major hospital, and therefore has few links to clinicians and clinical research. Central London provides these links in profusion, with several of main specialist clinical research centres nearby.

  5.4  NIMR scientific careers. NIMR is large, but does not always provide the stimulation needed for scientists to maintain their productivity until retirement. Links to a university would provide more varied and long term intellectual stimulus to the scientific staff, and also provide alternative career paths to those whose work has gone off the boil.

  5.5  Public engagement in Science. A National Institute for Medical Research should be open and available to the public, and play a part in fostering public understanding of and sympathy with science. The current site of NIMR, and its fortress-like stance, prevent this.

  6.  Conclusion. NIMR has an enviable reputation in basic biological research. Moving it to a central site associated with a university would greatly increase its potential and influence. In central London it could fulfill the role suggested by its title. I would have thought that the staff of the Institute, when presented with the opportunity to set up a new and enhanced institute, would have jumped at the chance, and I slightly at a loss to understand why they view a move to central London so negatively.

25 November 2004

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