Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Richard M Denton, former Member of the MRC Task Force on the NIMR


  At the end of July, I retired from my full-time post as Dean of Medical and Veterinary Sciences and this coincided with the end of my term on the Council of the MRC as well as the end of the work of the Taskforce set up to look at the long-term future of NIMR. I took this opportunity to have an extended holiday with my wife mainly in some isolated parts of New Zealand. We returned just before Christmas. I now have a part-time appointment at the University of Bristol and have had an opportunity to catch up with some of the developments around NIMR. Following reading some of the papers that have been submitted to the Inquiry as well as the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence given on 1 December 2004 and 20 December 2004, I would like to make the following specific personal comments:

    1.  It is the responsibility of the MRC to review the long-term future of the NIMR and its other Research Institutes. The five year reviews are an excellent way of judging the output of the previous five years and the plans of specific groups for the next five years but they are not the perfect vehicle for tackling strategic longer-term considerations. Thus every 20 years or so it is vital that the mission, site and size of institutes such as NIMR are carefully scrutinised. In my view, it was entirely appropriate that Council set up the Taskforce to advise Council on these issues.

    2.  The work of the Taskforce was difficult and complex but in my view it was carried out very properly. In particular, I would emphasise that I never experienced any hint of coercion by Colin Blakemore in his roles as either CEO of the MRC or Chairman of the Taskforce. The examples of possible coercion cited by members of NIMR at 1 December hearing are frankly not credible. Although I was initially sceptical about the inclusion of consultants, it is difficult to see how the work of the Taskforce could have been carried out in the time without their assistance. There were some communication difficulties especially between meetings of the Taskforce but this was largely because the members of the Taskforce had other responsibilities and very full diaries! The position of being Chairman of the Taskforce was an extremely challenging one and in my view Colin Blakemore carried it out rather well. At no time did I sense any serious conflict between this role and his responsibilities as CEO of the MRC. On the other hand, I did feel that the two NIMR representatives (Stephen Gamblin and Robin Lovell-Badge) where in an increasingly difficult position and probably came under great pressure from their colleagues and Director to defend NIMR as it is currently set up.

    3.  Although I am concerned about the proportion of MRC funds that are spent in the golden-triangle, I became convinced from the discussions within the Taskforce that a central London location for NIMR was the best option. For me the strongest argument in favour was that this would allow the co-location of NIMR with a wide range of clinicians and other scientists while ensuring that the key staff of NIMR were kept together. Like all the other members of the Taskforce I was clearly in favour of the MRC exploring the possible location of NIMR at either University College or Kings College (using the status quo of NIMR remaining at Mill Hill as a baseline). Both options appear to have strong positive features but many elements of the bids from the two London colleges will require very careful scrutiny by Council with the aid of the Steering Committee set up for this purpose. These include the proposed site, facilities, scientific and clinical support and interactions, national role, recruitment of staff and, of course, the cost.

    4.  In my view, if the efforts to relocate NIMR to central London were to fail, then Council will have to re-evaluate the position. As far as I am concerned it certainly would not mean that either a "renewed" NIMR should continue to be sited at Mill Hill or that NIMR should be closed! In any case, the very process of negotiating with University College and Kings College will further clarify what a "renewed" NIMR would look like and sharpen up the issues that were raised by the Taskforce about mission, governance, relationship to other institutions and national role. Importantly, it will also but the costs (capital and running) on a better footing. I would emphasise that all members of the Taskforce coming from very different backgrounds agreed that the Central London options should be explored.

    5.  I sincerely hope that the apparently extremely negative attitude of many senior staff within NIMR will abate and that they will engage constructively with discussions about the University College and Kings College options. Otherwise, I fear that the exciting future for NIMR set out in the Taskforce report will not be realised.

  I have kept this submission brief. If the Committee wishes any further clarification I would be happy to supply it to the best of my ability.

January 2005

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