Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Robb Krumlauf, Scientific Director, Stowers Institute for Medical Research

  I am delighted to hear that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are conducting an inquiry into the future of the MRC National Institute for Medical research. I have been deeply concerned about the validity of both the decision and the process by which the MRC Forward Investment Strategy and the subsequent Special Task Force reached the conclusion that it would be in the best scientific interest of the MRC to close NIMR and merge it with University College London (UCL) or King's College London (KCL). I should preface my specific comments by noting that I was a team leader and Head of Division at NIMR over a 15-year span from 1985-2000.

  I am a strong supporter of NIMR because it is a very special environment that combines scientific excellence in basic research with collegiality and shared resources. In my opinion NIMR was and is successful for four main reasons:

  1.  they attract top rank investigators at all levels;

  2.  they are focused on an area (basic biomedical research);

  3.  they employ shared core resources to maximize efficient use of enabling technologies; and

  4.  minimal bureaucracy permits a greater effort on generating research discoveries. This has lead to synergy and underpinned the outstanding scientific discoveries, which have emerged from this leading international institute.

  This kind of synergistic and interactive scientific culture is not easy to achieve and can't simply be transplanted to a new location. The current view of the MRC is that basic research needs to be combined with translational and clinical research and that this could not happen if NIMR remained in its present location, as there are no universities or hospitals on the site. In this regard it is important to note that in university and clinical settings there may be additional opportunities for collaborations, but there are also greatly increased demands upon researchers time and resources associated with the goals of universities and hospitals in educating students and treating patients. This can seriously dilute the effectiveness of an independent and synergistic institute focused on research outcomes.

  There is no doubt that it is of paramount import to exploit basic research discoveries though translational and clinical research directed towards improving health and well being. However, it is essential that we not to loose sight of the fact that generating basic research discoveries is the engine which drives this process. In the absence of basic or fundamental findings there is no raw material to develop and translate for the public good. Furthermore, successful translational and clinical research depends upon different skills, goals, approaches and resources than basic research. These are very different kinds of science. As a consequence immediate proximity in the same institution of those with expertise in basic, translational or clinical research does not always foster synergy and is often seen as a dilution of focused effort. It would be foolish to attempt to take the relatively small-sized group of scientists at NIMR and divert the focus from basic research. There is little probability that they would have the critical mass to make an effective effort in more than one of these areas.

  Collaboration and interaction are the key to exploiting research discoveries not simply proximity. I read with utter disbelief that the subcommittee felt NIMR on its present site might be too isolated from clinical or academic expertise to remain attractive and competitive. NIMR is widely respect as a great place to train and routinely attracts some of the very best postdoctoral fellows and students worldwide. With respect to collaboration while at NIMR I had active and productive collaborations throughout the UK and around the world. Science in today's world sees few boundaries and the immediate proximity to clinical or academic expertise does not in any way ensure close collaborations. The clinical expertise at UCL or KCL while good is still limited and scientists at NIMR already have productive links with clinicians in many locations.

  It was particularly confusing to me that the Special Task Force re-evaluating the future of NIMR reached a decision to move to KCL or UCL without considering the option of remaining in its present location. The Task Force confirmed that NIMR was an outstanding Institution and that any the option to move had to ensure the science and opportunities were equal to its present location. However, the cost effectiveness of moving to central London and maintaining the critical mass of scientists and animal facilities required to support their research was not properly considered. To those of us outside the country it appeared there was a hidden agenda to close NIMR and move it at all costs. The scientific criteria and cost justification for such a decision were totally unclear.

  In the US and Europe NIMR is seen as a special place and is widely held to be one of the very best places in the world to train. Since the announcement by the MRC on its intensions for NIMR I have been besieged by colleagues from the US and Europe asking how it would be possible for the MRC to turn a blind eye to one of its jewels and asking if they can help to avert this illogical course of action. I must say that the standpoint taken by the MRC is frankly viewed by the international scientific community as foolish and ignores the process of scientific peer review, which has underscored the quality of science at NIMR. To my international colleagues and myself this comes across as blatant political maneuvering and is a sign that the MRC has lost its way in planning for the scientific needs of the country.

  In recent years, the ineffective way that the MRC has handled support for project grants and universities has lead to great hardships for academic researchers in universities. Naturally this has made them envious of the core support for institutions such as NIMR. To close NIMR and downsize it in a new location to save money that can be directed in other areas to meet needs is short-sighted. The move to central London may cost much more money with little promise of increased productivity. The MRC needs independent and focused research institutes as centers of excellent.

  Finally, if scientists at NIMR are unable to recruit good people because of this decision it will be extremely difficult to maintain their research productivity. The uncertainty about whom and how many people would move to London and the time delay of the move will drive many of the best people at NIMR to seek other positions. Poaching by other institutions and universities will lead to a steady drain of top scientists and recruitment of new team leaders will be ineffective due to the uncertainty. The end result will be that a vibrant and strong NIMR will no longer exist to move. In summary for a variety of reasons it is imperative that the MRC reconsider its decision and initiate a fair and scientifically based evaluation of its strategy. The MRC can't afford to allow this decision to stand without a fair and credible debate, otherwise irreparable damage will be done to one of its major institutions.

3 November 2004

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