Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Pushpa Bhargava, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad

  When I was recently in London to attend a meeting on "Ethics, Science and Moral Philosophy of Assisted Human Reproduction" organised by my old friend, Professor Robert G Edwards, FRS, at The Royal Society, I learnt that the Medical Research Council (MRC) is considering shifting the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) to the campus of Kings College in Central London, and narrowing the Institute's focus to infection and immunity alone. May I, as an admirer of British science and the MRC and of the many highly productive initiatives that the MRC has taken over the last 50 years or so, and as one who has gained immensely from the NIMR, take the liberty of listing below some of my concerns in regard to the above proposal.

  (i)  I am unable to see any tenable reason for moving the Institute from its present campus which is beautiful, functional and provides scope for the Institute to expand or engage in new activities that may require additional construction.

  (ii)  NIMR is now as autonomous as it should be. It is likely to lose a part of this autonomy if it is moved to the campus of a university college. There were very specific reasons why all over the world in the last century-and-a-half, research institutions and agencies were set up to function autonomously outside of the university system. I have listed these reasons in one of our books, "The Saga of Indian Science since Independence: In a Nutshell", published by the Universities Press in 2003.

  (iii)  I am told that the proposed shifting of the Institute may cost around a hundred million pounds—a sum which is not trivial for even an affluent country like the UK. Will the expected benefit (if any) from the proposed move, be commensurate with this expense?

  (iv)  One of the important strengths of NIMR in its present location is its excellent animal house. It is more likely to be "attacked" in Central London (and its activities made more restrictive) by animal-rights fundamentalists than in its present location. This would be an anachronism as the MRC's stand in regard to the animal rights movement is widely known and appreciated.

  (v)  On account of some of the factors mentioned above and the new mandate that would curtail the scope of the activities of the NIMR, we fear that some of the best-known members of the existing scientific staff in the Institute may leave, and its ability to attract people may diminish.

  (vi)  The scientific record of the Institute since its inception more than five decades ago, has been outstanding both in basic and applied work. What has been impressive is the sustained excellence of the scientific work of the Institute over this long period. This is exemplified by Nobel Prizes to scientists who have worked there, its ability to attract and retain people of that calibre, and the number of NIMR scientists that have been elected to the Fellowship of The Royal Society. I recall the discovery of both paper and gas chromatography at the NIMR, as of interferon and cryo-preservation of spermatozoa, all of which have had enormous impact in diverse areas. Along with the LMB at Cambridge, NIMR has been the flag-ship of MRC. Therefore, the move to shift the Insitute may, in the eye of its scientific peers, tantamount to a policy of denigration of sustained excellence in the important field of bio-medical research. This would be a most saddening anachronism as Britain has been widely perceived as the Mecca of outstanding biomedical research, that has taken bold decisions and blazed new trails in the area. Indeed, if such were not the policy of MRC, the structure of DNA would not have been discovered—or the LMB set up—when it was!

  (vii)  Few institutions of the size of NIMR have made the contribution it has—both in quality and in quantity—in initiating and supporting bio-medical research in other countries that have been not so well endowed as Britain has been. I have been one of the many beneficiaries of this generosity—and so have been many of my distinguished friends around the world. The integrity of such an Institute needs to be supported and not diminished. This does not mean that one may condone lapses in quality or quantity, or lack of focus or of commitment to society. Such institutes surely themselves like to be monitored continuously and stringently in regard to all these parameters, but any change required to maintain the high standards of such institutes in various respects, must come from within and not enforced from outside. (Such an imposition from outside, I recognise, is necessary in the case of institutes that have deteriorated beyond a point, which NIMR certainly has not.) In fact, I believe NIMR has been submitted to regular stringent peer reviews, and appropriate action taken following such reviews. I dare say that it is this stringent introspection and inspection that has allowed NIMR to keep its place of pride in the community of laboratories of the highest level of excellence in the field.

  (viii)  As I have stated above, research institutes of a high level of excellence in the non-university sector have played an important role around the world in the progress of science and technology. Examples would be NIH, Institut Pasteur, several CNRS and INSERM labs in France, the laboratories of the Max-Planck Gesselschaft in Germany, of CSIRO in Australia, and of CSIR, ICMR and ICAR in India, and the institutes under the national scientific academies in countries such as Russia and China. I am sure you are just as well aware as I am that this has led to jealousies against such institutes on part of the university system in many countries, and thus generated an unreasonable (sometimes overt, sometimes covert) opposition to them. In the light of this ground reality, the proposed action in regard to NIMR is likely to send a wrong message around the world and could be used by unscrupulous elements in countries such as mine, to diminish non-university research. It is, in fact, partly this concern that has prompted me to write this letter to you. Science is today the only truly international activity that cuts across all man-made barriers.

2 November 2004

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