Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum from Dr Jonathan Cooke

  Having attended the evidence session at Westminster yesterday, I should like to place on record some short remarks about instances, during the hearing, where I felt that a distorted impression might have been conveyed given the enormous amount of material that committee members have had to absorb on this issue.

  1.  During questioning of MRC officials (part 1 of hearing), it was stated at one point that "many prominent scientists from around the world" have been upset by MRC's plans with regard to Mill Hill. While this is not literally untrue, as witness the letters that are doubtless in hand, the enormous distorting effects in a case like this must be borne in mind. That is, most research scientists, even good ones, just resent disruption of the flow of their ongoing work for any reason, and empathise with those they feel are their personal friends in a worldwide community. Most do not think, or feel, strategically in terms of the long-term optimal use of resources that are put into science (though many are trained to mouth the right catch phrases). It is these "friends", whether spontaneously writing or (in more cases) lobbied to write by their Mill Hill associates, who express outrage or negative concern. The greater number are silent, even though aware of the MRC plans, because they recognise their appropriateness, even long-term inevitability.

  2.  Professor Blakemore indeed seems to have pushed at the limits of permissible managerial tactics. But as emerged in his first submissions, he came into post inheriting an almost impossible decision-taking procedure, in the form of a task-force including members (NIMR staff) whose mind set was going to render them irreversibly partisan in relation to certain of the options, together with some requirement that each step of the decision-tree was to be sanctioned unanimously by the members! In his defence, this is a recipe for the sort of extreme managerial exasperation that leads to tactical unwisdom.

  3.  The ultimate differences between MRC's hierarchy of preferences for the future and current NIMR sentiments seemed insufficiently explored at the hearing. That is, MRC believes that while preservation of an entire broadly inter-disciplinary institute would be "nice", appropriate future location for each major grouping of scientists must take precedence over that if it cannot be achieved. Although the overall peer-review standing of NIMR scientists has been high within recent years, this has not been universal across the board or over time. Despite Sir Skehel's remarks, few are convinced by the arguments that the whole has been scientifically (as opposed to sentimentally or socially) greater than the sum-of-parts as across the major groupings (known technically as supergroups) within NIMR. The case for preservation of most of the groupings as more focussed "institutes" is much stronger.

  4.  Sir Skehel's representation of (a) the physical appropriateness and (b) his experiences of recruitment across the years at Mill Hill, were biased to his cause to say the least. I understand the viewpoint, that the current building is irremediably out of style for the future, to have been represented in the session immediately prior to the public one. On recruitment, I respectfully suggest that selective memory is in operation. NIMR's current reputation, at least in basic cell and developmental biology, rests largely on a generation of scientists who were recruited there in the late 1980s, did the work and have recently left for "peak of career" posts elsewhere. That was in an era largely before such environments as those offered by eg the Wellcome specialist institutes for recruits of elite standard, were in existence. Without wishing to disparage in any way the very good younger scientists and others currently remaining at NIMR, one has to point out that it has not been possible to secure the equivalent of the workforce of that time, in these areas; the "style-conscious" generation now on the scene (see my earlier submission) does not choose positions there so readily.

  5.  On outreach programmes; if educational community outreach is to be a major facet of any renewed institute, as would indeed make great sense, this also weighs in against continuing on the Mill Hill site despite the current director's plans. Educational "days out" tend to involve combined visits to one or more other, metropolitan attractions. The location is a quiet, outer suburban one whose transport infrastructure counts greatly against it for this sort of role, as indeed it does in general. That could not be altered without a degree of government intervention going altogether beyond what I imagine possible, and this would still leave the eccentric location itself.

December 2004

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