Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Annex 1

RESPONSE TO THE EVIDENCE OF SIR JOHN SKEHEL (PUBLISHED AS APPENDIX 61)

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE QUESTIONS

Comments are in italics.

1.  What factors persuaded the MRC that a stronger focus on translational research is required? What mechanisms were explored for achieving this end?

  Sir John suggests that the vision of an increased emphasis on translational research at NIMR was simply "opportunistic", and that it was developed by MRC CEOs, the administrative staff and the Council. It was, in fact, developed by the Task Force, which included two NIMR scientists, and which consulted NIMR extensively, had presentations from NIMR scientists and conducted workshops and discussions at NIMR. We have been led to believe that NIMR accepts and even welcomes the increased emphasis on translation, and it is disappointing to see Sir John's negative reaction to it.

  He questions what "extra mechanisms" MRC is using to advance translational research. They are several, and they underpin our Delivery Plan proposals to OST. They have evolved in consultation with our committee on Strategy, Corporate Policy and Evaluation, which includes all chairs of research boards and with our Clinical Research Advisory Group. An essay on our strategic views in the area of clinical research in general, and translation in particular, are the front page feature on the MRC web Portal, which is directly available to all units and institutes. I am disappointed that Sir John appears not to have read this article, particularly since it refers to the role that we hope NIMR might play.

  Sir John suggests that the MRC will reduce its commitment to basic research in its efforts to strengthen translational research, but the best early-phase translational research is simply high-quality basic research orientated towards clinical problems. Some of the most outstanding such research is done at LMB and the Cancer Cell Biology Unit in Cambridge, the Protein Phosphorylation Unit in Dundee, and the Human Immunology Unit in Oxford. Sir John on the one hand extols the translational work already being done at NIMR but, on the other, sets it up as the enemy of basic research.

  Finally, he suggests that an increased commitment to translation would decrease NIMR's "value as a site for training in biomedical science, not least for clinician-scientist trainees". As Professor Savill pointed out in the ST hearing, the record of NIMR in training young clinical scientists is disappointing, with only 9?? young clinicians out of the roughly 750 people on site.

2.  What impact is a heavier focus on translational research expected to have on the balance of MRC funding for basic and applied research?

  Sir John is right in saying that future clinical science will depend on the maintenance of support for basic research, and MRC has no intention of robbing the latter to pay for the former. We hope and expect additional funding from SR2004 (and SR2006) for the increased commitment to clinical research. In the meantime, we hope to encourage basic biomedical researchers to direct their fundamental skills more towards problems that have clinical significance, not to switch from being basic to being clinical researchers.

3.  What statistical and other evidence was found from UK and beyond to indicate that colocated medical research institutes realise more than a stand-alone institute in terms of cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research collaborations, and partnerships with other research funders?

  Sir John's view that the Task Force's view was based on "selected quotations from a minority of opinions obtained from MRC selected interviewees" is an insult to the Task Force. Those interviewed for the extensive institutional consultation were selected, to a large extent, by the Task Force, feeding suggestions to the consultants. The message from these consultations was clear - and logical: if you put people with complementary interests close together, exchange of views and collaboration are more likely. It seems to me perverse to suggest that collaboration in less likely if potential collaborators are close.

  Sir John says that partnerships with other funders "are very successful at NIMR". In fact, only about 9% of the total cost of NIMR is derived from other other funders. The MRC pays a higher fraction of the total cost of NIMR than of most other institutes and units. In some, as much as 30% of the cost comes from other sources.

4.  What evidence is there that the current location of NIMR inhibits the ability of scientists there to conduct translational research, and to collaborate with other research institutes and hospitals?

  Once again, I appeal to the argument that it cannot possibly be true that proximity to a hospital and medical school will stimulate less collaboration that geographical isolation. It is important to point out that MRC has insisted to KCL and UCL that whatever governance structures they propose for the renewed institute must not interfere with existing or future collaborations with other institutions.

5.  How was membership of the Task Force determined? What steps were taken to inform stakeholders of the progress of its work?

  You will note that Sir John criticises one member of the Task Force, who, as well as being "a clinician" was "by his own admission in favour of disbanding NIMR and redistributing its funding". He does not mention that the two members of NIMR staff were (understandably) in favour of retaining NIMR on the Mill Hill site! Sir John appears to be saying that anyone who has views other than his own is fundamentally flawed in his or her judgement.

  I object to the suggestion that there were "disagreements between the formal reports and the views of Task Force members". The record of email exchanges demonstrates that the pressure to modify reports of meetings after they had been approved by everyone else came largely, sometimes exclusively, from the NIMR representatives on the Task Force. I also deny that I (MRC CEO) attempted "to influence and persuade Task Force members to agree with reports that were not consistent with the spirit of the actual meetings." The Task Force were a group of senior and powerful individuals. The suggestion that they could be manipulated in this way is an insult to them as well as to me. Again, the record of email correspondence demonstrates that this allegation is entirely unfounded.

6.  What weight the Task Force ascribed to the consultation exercises which it used to formulate its conclusions?

  Sir John's quotation from the Task Force Report is accurate. The Task Force did not attach as much weight to the public (web-based) consultation as it did to the longer and more intensive institutional consultations. I remind the S&T Committee that two members of the Task Force were members of staff at NIMR and they did not dissent from this view. We were told that about 2/3rds of those responding to the public consultation were either members of NIMR staff or had some personal connection with NIMR. We did not know what fraction, if any, of the remainder had been encouraged by colleagues at NIMR to respond to the questionnaire. In addition, at least some members of the Task Force were concerned that the glassy booklet describing NIMR's "Research Achievements 2000-04", which was distributed to more than 1500 researchers in Britain with a Foreword relating it to the consultation, might have biased the result of that consultation, by convincing respondents that what was at issue was the quality of past and present science.

7.  What assessment was made of the impact on staff retention and recruitment of a move to (a) central London and (b) outside London?

  The main reason for the Task Force limiting its consideration of sites for the renewed institute to the London area was its recognition of the hostile reaction of NIMR staff to the recommendation of the Forward Investment Strategy committee that the institute should move to Cambridge. NIMR had argued that any move away from London would break up research groups. However, we now seem to be faced with the argument that NIMR can never be moved from Mill Hill (even some other part of London) because it would be impossible for staff to work elsewhere. If we were to accept this argument, no MRC establishment could ever move from its present location.

  The Task Force was made fully aware of the views of NIMR staff and many of them were surprised by an unwillingness even to consider any future other than to stay where they are, working as they do. Many of them came to the conclusion that, despite their concern not to add to the anxiety of NIMR staff, this could not be the only factor determining their recommendation to the MRC. The goal of the Task Force was not simply to recommend a future for NIMR that optimally satisfied the existing staff. It was to propose a vision for the future that balance the concerns of present staff against the needs of the MRC and the wider biomedical community.

8.  What assessment was made of the potential initial and recurrent costs of a move to (a) central London and (b) outside London?

  MRC has not rejected "Mill Hill as an option for NIMR in the future". It has accepted the unanimous view of the Task Force that the vision for the renewed instituted would be better realised by co-location with an HEI and research-active hospital, and will explore that preferred option. The business cases for KCL and UCL were not fully developed for the Task Force but will be considered by the MRC Council. Sir John suggests that the capital cost of keeping NIMR at Mill Hill will be considerably less expensive than relocation. The independent analysis of the building consultants engaged by MRC does not support this view. The present Mill Hill building is far from JIF standards for laboratories, and minimal renovation cannot create laboratories to meet the needs and expectations of the 21st century.

  In the long run (the timescale of the Task Force review), a total renovation or rebuild would be needed on the Mill Hill site, and this would not be significantly less expensive than a new building on a central London site. Given the possible contributions from the host university and from the value of the Mill Hill site, it seems likely that Mill Hill would be the most expensive option, in the long run.

10.  To what extent will a final decision be based upon financial considerations?

  It is ridiculous to suggest that financial considerations will emerge only after a decision on location has been taken. The Council will consider both the science cases and the business cases from KCL and UCL. The business cases will include financial contributions from the Colleges and it is likely that the capital value of the Mill Hill site could also be deployed. The MRC expects to have to contribute from its own capital funds. We are well aware that, if additional capital funds are needed for the relocation, it will be necessary to present a very convincing case for funding from the OST Large Facilities Roadmap. Major renovation or rebuilding on the Mill Hill site would also be very expensive and, since there appears to be no offer of funding from a university and the value of the site would obviously not be available, the shortfall in funding could well be substantially higher than for a new building in central London.



 
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