Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Supplementary evidence from Professor Colin Blakemore, National Institute for Medical Research

Comments on Sir John Skehel's Letter of 15 December (Appendix 125)

Comments are in italics.


  I'm puzzled. Sir John's copy of the Stoker Report appears to have been specially edited to remove all references to Stoker's strong support for a move of NIMR into association with the CRC or its proposed successor—a new clinical research centre with the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the Hammersmith Hospital. I have attached a pdf copy of the Stoker Report, so that the S&T Committee can judge the accuracy of Sir John's statement.

  The sentence that I quoted ("This should be achieved by the move of the NIMR"), which Sir John seems to imply is an invention, appears in Para 3.4:

    "As we have already pointed out, the Council's original intention in establishing the CRC was that there should be strong basic research on site and that this should be achieved by the move of the NIMR to Northwick Park."

  This clearly refers back to Para 2.14, from which the other sentences that I quoted were drawn:

    "We next examined whether, as the Council had originally intended, it had indeed proved possible to bring together at the CRC an `adequate and appropriately comprehensive concentration of clinical and pre-clinical subjects' and were agreed that in formulating this concept of linking clinical with basic research it had shown remarkable prescience. Because of the way medicine is developing it is of crucial importance, if clinical research in the UK is to remain internationally competitive, to apply the new techniques of the biological sciences—for example those of molecular and cellular biology—as an integral part of the study of an ever increasing number of clinical research problems."

  The S&T Committee will see from the unedited Stoker Report that, contrary to Sir John's assertion, there are many references to the suggested move of NIMR, throughout the document. For example:

    Paras 1.2-1.3: "We therefore turned to the Council's memorandum, submitted to Ministers in September 1959, which sets out the arguments which led to the proposal to create a new clinical research centre. At that time the Council put forward as its ultimate aim the "bringing together in one place of an adequate and appropriately comprehensive concentration of relevant clinical and pre-clinical subjects . . . At that time the Council examined the possibility of building a hospital at Mill Hill in proximity to the existing National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), but did not pursue this as it was clear that the surrounding area would not provide enough patients. However, it was clear that the chosen site should have sufficient space eventually to accommodate the transfer of the NIMR"

    Para 4.1: "The new national centre should be formed by merging the best of the CRC, the RPMS and the NIMR on one site. This would provide a centre of excellence where clinical research and postgraduate training can be pursued to internationally competitive standards. The NIMR component would provide not only a yardstick of excellence but also the skills and techniques necessary to exploit to the full the unparalleled scientific opportunities for advances in clinical science."

    Para 4.3: "While there are in our view exceptional attractions in suggesting that the essential basic science component of the new centre be provided by the NIMR from the outset, we have already established that its move is only likely to be acceptable if the inevitable physical disruption were reduced to a minimum. We urge however that the integration of the NIMR into the new centre should remain a long-term objective"

    Conclusions 6.1 vi: "There are great attractions in providing the basic scientific component of the new centre by moving some or all of the NIMR to form part of the new institution. If this does not prove possible it should remain a long-term objective."

  I trust that the members of the S&T Committee will ask why Sir John has misrepresented the facts in such a way as to try to convince the Committee that I was lying and that the Stoker Report did not recommend moving NIMR into association with a research-active hospital.

  I have it on good authority that no serious suggestion of a move of NIMR to Northwick Park was made to my predecessor and certainly neither on my appointment in 1987 nor in the 17 years since then has the Stoker report or any suggestion of transfer of NIMR from Mill Hill been mentioned to me by MRC, until I was given the FIS subcommittee report on 31 March 2003.

  I suspect that Professor Blakemore is wrong in all his conclusions on the Stoker report and that as a new CEO he may be fighting yesterday's battles for yesterday's men.

  Again, this comment from Sir John is a curious version of reality. Para 3.7 of the Stoker Report states:

    "In his discussions with us, the Director of the NIMR [ie Sir John's predecessor] was clear about the undoubted benefits to clinical science of a merger with the CRC."

  The Stoker report, as the S&T Committee will see, makes it clear that the MRC had planned since 1959 to move NIMR into association with a research-active hospital, and the Stoker Committee strongly recommended that such a move should eventually take place:

    Para 4.3: "We urge however that the integration of the NIMR into the new centre should remain a long-term objective"

  Stocker's recommendations included:

    "There are great attractions in providing the basic scientific component of the new centre by moving some or all of the NIMR to form part of the new institution. If this does not prove possible it should remain a long-term objective."

  It was the cost of a move a the time that led the Stoker Committee to conclude that it should be delayed, and they pointed out that the fabric of the building at NIMR "can be expected to last without major repair for some twenty years." That was written nearly 20 years ago.

  Again, I ask the S&T Committee to consider why Sir John misrepresents the facts in this way.


  John Savill gave simple factual evidence to the Committee. He pointed out that there are only nine clinically active scientists out of a total of about 750 staff at NIMR, while the Clinical Sciences Centre had recruited 54 clinical fellows (out of a much smaller total staff) at its quinquennial review this year, Professor Savill's own Centre for Inflammation Research in Edinburgh, with only 200 staff, had recruited 33 clinical training fellows and 13 more senior clinicians in the past five years, and UCL has 189 clinical training fellows and 22 clinical scientists. Sir John quotes an anonymous source at the CRC as saying that "many Hammersmith clinicians are affiliated with the CSC". This does not, however, explain away the surprisingly poor record of NIMR in attracting bright young clinicians for research training. Why are so few clinicians affiliated to NIMR?


  I was not at the MRC at the time of the last QQR of NIMR, but what I can say is that it was concerned with scientific achievement from 1996-2001 and with specific proposals for research from 2001-06. What Sir John and the senior staff at NIMR still seem unwilling to recognise is that the strategic review conducted by the MRC, through the work of the Forward Investment Strategy committee and the Task Force, is concerned the coming 20-50 years. When Drs Lovell-Badge and Gamblin were asked at the first meeting of the Task Force to describe the mission of NIMR they said that NIMR had no explicit mission. It just did "good science". The OST requires that Research Councils conduct strategic reviews of their institutes, specifically examining their scientific missions and asking, in each case, whether and why an institute is needed to fulfil the mission. In the case of NIMR, both the FIS committee and the Task Force recommended that the long-term vision for NIMR lies in more translational research, in close partnership with a university and medical school. This vision has been unanimously endorsed by the Council. I do not understand why Sir John is appealing to funding decisions that were made nearly five years ago.

  To some extent Professor Savill and the CEO are importing an issue, which will of course be addressed by NIMR in the appropriate future reviews. This is also the case for Professor Blakemore's additional comment on the proportion of NIMR budget that derives from sources other than MRC. Our performance and strategy in this regard were also endorsed by MRC for the 2001-06 period.

  Again, I cannot comment on endorsement on performance nearly five years ago. I simply pointed out a fact—that the fraction of NIMR's income that derives from other sources (about 9%) is low compared with most MRC units/institutes. The hope of the Task Force was that this could be improved by a move into close association with an HEI/hospital and by appropriate governance arrangements.


  I draw the attention of the S&T Committee to the conclusion of the Stoker report in 1986, namely that the fabric of the building at NIMR "can be expected to last without major repair for some twenty years." The Ove Arup survey, to which Sir John refers (described in an appendix to the Task Force report), concluded that, over a 20-year period, "Strategic refurbishment (to `well-found' standards) and limited new construction" on the Mill Hill site would cost £159.9 million, including maintenance and utilities, while "phased replacement of existing buildings by new construction" would cost £172.8 million.

  It would be very unfortunate, in my opinion, if the MRC were to make such an important decision about the future of its largest single recurrent investment simply on the basis of the capital cost. Over a 20-50 year period, the recurrent costs (currently £33 million per annum) will enormously exceed the capital cost of refurbishment or a new building. If a new building in central London significantly enhances the future potential of the institute, as concluded unanimously by the Task Force, it must surely be the right thing to do. And in any case, with the possibility of a significant contribution to building costs from the host HEI and with a probable contribution from the capital value of the Mill Hill site, it seems certain that a new building in central London would be less costly to the public purse that the major refurbishment or rebuild that will be needed at Mill Hill in the 20-50-year time-frame.

December 2004

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