Memorandum from Professor James Fawcett,
University of Cambridge
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 am slightly at a loss to understand
why they view a move to central London so negatively.