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