Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 130

Statement from Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive, Medical Research Council

INQUIRY INTO THE FUTURE OF NIMR

  I ask the Committee to consider the following comments on issues that have emerged during the Inquiry into the Future of NIMR. Not least, I hope that the Committee will be sympathetic to the unpleasant and alarming position in which I now find myself as a result of the various allegations of coercion, mismanagement, and even threats of dismissal of Dr Lovell-Badge.

  The Committee will know that I did not initiate the strategic review of NIMR, but I inherited a complex and extremely difficult situation. However, after I was interviewed for my post, I spoke to members of the Forward Investment Strategy (FIS) sub-committee, and to other members of Council; I read the OST's Quinquennial Review of the Research Councils and the 1986 Stoker Report. All this made me realise that the review of NIMR was absolutely essential, given the impending retirement of Sir John Skehel. At no point did I have any sense of a "hidden agenda" in the MRC—among Head Office staff, in Council, or within the FIS sub-committee—to close or damage NIMR. On the contrary, I was impressed by the care and decency with which the MRC appeared to have conducted itself, compared with the apparently uncompromising stance of Sir John Skehel and NIMR senior staff.

  Even before I took up my post, I visited Mill Hill three times, looked around the entire establishment and spoke to large numbers of staff, to try to understand the basis of their objection to the whole process and of the evident unwillingness of Sir John and senior staff to engage with the MRC. I was present at the Council meeting in July 2003 and supported the idea to establish the Task Force, with full representation of Mill Hill staff and their nominees, and a very transparent process. Then, after I took up my post, I hoped that new management, and a new, open, fully consultative approach would win back the confidence and support of Sir John and his staff.

  At the early stages of the work of the Task Force, things went quite well, with a good spirit in the meetings, and evidence of a real willingness to discuss from the Mill Hill representatives. I went to visit the institute on five further occasions, trying to gain the support of staff and to demonstrate my openness and my wish to make the process fair and balanced.

  There were hiccups along the way, and, in particular, there was some frustration when the NIMR representatives delayed the release of summary statements after meetings by trying to remove or dilute statements that implied possible change in the institute in the future, even when those statements had been agreed by the rest of the Task Force. I was not alone in gaining the impression that Robin and Steve were put in an impossible position, wanting to play an open and full role in discussion at Task Force meetings, and yet having to act as agents of opinion at Mill Hill, and not least of Sir John. However, right up to, and including the fifth meeting of the Task Force, we made steady progress and managed to maintain consensus, despite the very different starting opinions around the table. The pleasure in achieving consensus, particularly in support of the preference for a move to central London, is conveyed in Sir Paul Nurse's and Professor Richard Flavell's testimony to the Committee.

  Things began to fall apart after the fifth meeting, and especially after I had communicated the Conclusions of that meeting to Sir John. I have documented in other submissions to the S&T Committee the events leading up to the irreconcilable difference of opinion about the Mill site that emerged in the email exchanges and conference calls after that fifth meeting.

  Please allow me to comment on what I anticipate might be some of the questions in the Committee's minds:

Was there coercion and were there threatening phone calls?

  I deny categorically, and will do so through formal processes if the allegations are ever made publicly, that I coerced any member of the Task Force to agree to statements against their will, and especially that I said anything to Robin Lovell-Badge that could have been construed as a threat of dismissal.

  I am writing this before the evidence session on 10 January, but, so far, the accusation of coercion appears to be based on:

  1.  An email from me to Steve Tomlinson on 10 July, encouraging him to confirm his oft-stated opposition to the inclusion of Mill Hill as an active option in the initial options appraisal.

  The following exchange from the 1 December hearing is pertinent:

Q83 Chairman: What is missing that we should have, in your opinion?

  Sir John Skehel: On this particular point of coercion, the most convincing thing is this particular e-mail from Blakemore to Tomlinson. That has been submitted to you and left to your discretion, in terms of whether this Committee publishes it or not. We think it is actually pretty good evidence that there was extreme persuasion of some members of the Task Force to decide in a particular way.

Q98 Mr Key: Do we have any other example of coercion at all, from anywhere, in terms of Dr Lovell-Badge's allegation?

  Sir John Skehel: The coercion that was referred to by the other Task Force members focused merely on this e-mail to Professor Tomlinson. I think that is probably it.

  I have presented to the Committee the entire email exchange, before and after this message to Steve Tomlinson, which makes clear that it was not coercive. Professor Tomlinson has already stated as much to the media and he signed up to the statement circulated between Task Force members last August that stated: "The work of the Task Force was properly conducted, without coercion." But of course, he will express his own opinion to the Committee on 10 January.

  2.  The allegations of Robin Lovell-Badge during the hearing on 1 December.

  Actually, Robin did not specifically accuse me of coercion, and that would be rather difficult to substantiate, given the fact that his views on the Mill Hill option became progressively firmer rather than him being forced to join the consensus. But he did, when pressed, accuse me of having said: "Robin, I don't know how you can disagree with me. I am your employer."

  I hope that the S&T Committee will reflect on the fact that, even though this remembered quotation is nothing like a threat of dismissal, my reputation and my career might hang on it. In any case, I deny ever having said this, or anything that could have been taken as a threat.

  I have presented extensive documentation to the Committee about the two telephone conversations that I believe Robin Lovell-Badge was referring to in his oral evidence. This shows that, directly after the conversations, he never even hinted to the other members of the Task Force that he had been threatened, and he never reported such a threat through the usual channels (to the Director of HR at MRC, AUT, Chairman of Council, etc). It is true that Sir John Skehel has suddenly remembered (on 2 December) that Robin told him something, but he does not say what or when. If this had taken the form of a report of threatened dismissal, why did Sir John not report such a serious offence at the time?

  There was a single heated phone conversation between me and Robin, on 28 June, but it was Robin who telephoned me, and he was immediately extremely aggressive. The conversation did become difficult, but I hope that the S&T Committee will remember that the circumstances were difficult. Robin had already accepted the "Conclusions of the Fifth Meeting" three times. Then suddenly he changed his position radically after speaking to Sir John Skehel, and he was holding up the release of the Conclusions document against the wishes of every other member of the Task Force who had responded. But far from trying to coerce him into supporting the position of the rest of the Task Force against his will, I offered to distribute the Conclusions as a majority rather than a unanimous document. I offered to step down from the chair. And I proposed Robin as a member of the sub-committee to prepare the full report. All this is recorded in my emails directly after his telephone call.

  The Committee asked Paul Nurse and Richard Flavell about their reasons for wanting to remove the phrase "without coercion" from the statement from Task Force members that was provided to the S&T Committee. They both said that they had never felt coerced and that no-one else on the Task Force had reported being coerced. In response to Q127, Paul Nurse said: "Putting in words like "without coercion" seemed to me to be a statement that would be provocative, as if it was countering issues that were suggesting that there was coercion when it came to this question of coercion again it seemed to me too pointed and I really wanted to try and get the Mill Hill members of the Task Force on board,"

  In other words, their removal of the word "without coercion" in no way implied that they thought that coercion had occurred, but they simply wanted to try to produce a statement that Robin and Steve Gamblin might also be willing to sign. In fact, Robin and Steve never replied.

  The S&T Committee will note that the serious accusation of coercion now rests principally on Robin Lovell-Badge's verbal assertions during the evidence session. I trust that the Committee will note that he made no mention of telephone calls, coercion or threats of dismissal in his written evidence. Is it not surprising that he did not make this a central feature of that evidence, so as to ensure that he was questioned about it by the Committee?

  Robin makes it clear that his opinions continued to harden against the consensus developed during the Fifth Meeting (the preference for a move to central London). He most certainly did not sign up to anything against his will, and he recorded his views vehemently, not only in his input to Task Force discussion but also in his letter, with Steve Gamblin, to the MRC Council. So, what kind of impotent coercion could this have been that had absolutely no influence on Robin's stated opinion?

  Paul Nurse commented on the "one-on-one discussions" that occurred during the Task Force. It is true that, as chairman of a very divided group, I found myself quite often in the position of trying to mediate, after actual meetings, in an attempt to achieve or preserve consensus. I ask the S&T Committee to consider the evidence from the email exchanges that I have provided. There were occasions on which apparently intractable differences of opinion between Task Force members emerged after meetings, and these were not being resolved through email discussion. I must say that these almost always resulted from demands from the NIMR representatives for changes in summary documents that had been agreed by most if not all the other members. In these situations I did telephone members of the Task Force, but only to explore opinions and to see whether there was any way of moving forward the discussion. I was never coercive and certainly never threatening. (I should mention that most members of the Task Force, including Robin Lovell-Badge, gave me their mobile phone numbers, specifically so that I could contact them out of office hours).

  Indeed, there was extensive discussion between other Task Force members outside meetings, and also between Sir John Skehel and some members. (I have supplied the S&T Committee with the entire set of emails that I sent and received, but I presume that there were many others, and many phone conversations, between other members of the Task Force). This amount of interchange outside meetings was unusual—greater than I have experienced in most other committees on which I have served—but there was nothing sinister in it, certainly not in the exchanges that I knew about. And it was not surprising, given the range of opinions around the table, and the various representative roles that individuals were playing (Robin and Steve Gamblin as NIMR representatives, Richard Flavell and Paul Nurse as NIMR nominees, Kay Davies and Dick Denton as members of Council, Steve Tomlinson and Dick Denton as representatives of the world outside the Golden Triangle).

  The crucial question, I guess, is whether any of the exchanges outside the meetings resulted in individuals being compelled to sign up to positions with which they did not agree. Certainly Robin Lovell-Badge and Steve Gamblin did not do so—their disagreement with the majority view on the status of the Mill Hill option is clearly recorded in paragraph 4.2 of the Task Force report and, in a more complete form, in their letter, which was presented to Council. Steve Gamblin, Paul Nurse and Richard Flavell have already told the S&T Committee that they were not coerced, and presumably similar questions will be put to Kay Davies and Steve Tomlinson.

  There remains the question of whether Robin and Steve Gambin might, because of my position as the CEO of the MRC, have felt intimidated by me. I certainly never tried to use my position as CEO to intimidate them or any other member of the Task Force. (Remember that I had been in post for only about a month when the Task Force first met, and I had no sense of power). In fact the email record clearly shows that neither Robin nor Steve was in any way deferential towards me—just the opposite, in fact. The only aggressive messages exchanged between members of the Task Force came from Steve and Robin, and were usually directly at me! I remember very well that in one conference call, Steve called my attempt to explain a particular point as "facile"—hardly the response of someone worried about his job!

  Nevertheless, I certainly appreciated that Steve and Robin were in a very difficult position, trying to play their role as individuals participating in open discussion in the Task Force, yet also responsible for communicating with and representing the views of Sir John Skehel and the staff of NIMR. They expressed their own frustration in this dual role at several points in discussion and in email exchanges, and I recorded it myself at various points.

  The record shows that I was sensitive to the strain on both of them. For instance, at 08:23 on 23 July 2004 I wrote to Steve Gamblin: "I know—not least from talking to Guy Dodson on the phone yesterday—the stresses and pressures that have fallen on you and Robin, and I appreciate how difficult it must have been to try to bring your own views to the table and to participate dispassionately in the discussion, while also acting as representatives of the opinions of staff at Mill Hill."

  I was particularly concerned about the effects on Robin. For instance, in an email to some of the Task Force sent at 18:42 on 1 August, I wrote:

    "I should mention, in strict confidence, that Robin is not well. He looked dreadful when I saw him before the open meeting on Friday, so I called him to ask about his health later in the day. He said that he is having treatment (although he didn't expand) and that he is very stressed because of the situation at Mill Hill".

      And, on 30 July (just four days after Robin's extremely abusive email of 26 July, in which he accused me of "notable failure" as a chairman and, for the first time, of having threatened him), I sent the following internal email to senior staff at MRC:

      From:    Blakemore Colin Sent: Friday 30 July 2004 18:10

    To:       Smith David

      Cc:       Dunstan Diana; Winterton Nick

      Subject:   CONFIDENTIAL: Robin Lovell-Badge

    Dear David,

    In view of the fact that I thought that Robin looked very unwell this morning (and you agreed), I gave him a call to ask about his state of health. He freely admitted that he is not well—partly the pressure of Task Force business and worries, but partly something organic, which he didn't elaborate on, and for which he said he had another hospital appointment this evening.

    I told him that I had recently found out that he is past deadline for the submission of his part of the QQR papers, and that I would report his state of health to those involved, so that this is taken into account in dealing with the situation. He seemed genuinely grateful and said that he hoped to get it finished in a couple of weeks. I am copying this to Diana, so that she can inform those involved in negotiating with him about this.

    We must remember duty of care—even if he has been very difficult recently!

    Have a good weekend!

    Colin

  I hope that the S&T Committee will ask whether this could have been written by someone who had threatened Robin with dismissal.

Was it appropriate for me to chair the task force?

  In response to Q140 on 20 December, Paul Nurse said: "Colin came in to a very difficult situation and certainly took it on freshly. I felt he had an open mind and was considering all the alternatives. I thought he chaired the meetings well and reasonably fairly. He did express his opinions but I felt that was okay." And to Q167, Richard Flavell said: "I think in many ways Colin did a very good job. He started the process with an open mind. He had a skilful handling of the meetings with regard to the development of consensus. It was a terribly difficult job."

  However, in response to Q166 on 20 December, Paul Nurse said: "We put Colin in a very difficult position as both CEO and Chairman of the Task Force. It was very difficult for him to act in both roles. I did not realise this at the beginning but as it went forward I really felt sorry for the position he had."

  In my own evidence to the Committee on 1 December (Q10), I said:

    "Remember, I did not set up the Task Force. I sat in on the Council meeting at which its composition was discussed, and that Council meeting decided to invite me and my predecessor, Sir George Radda, to co-chair the Task Force. The first meeting of the Task Force occurred in fact after Sir George's retirement, so it fell to me to be Chairman. I thought a lot before the first meeting about whether this was appropriate. I was absolutely sure that it was appropriate that the Chief Executive should be present during the discussions, since they were of such enormous strategic importance for MRC, but I asked the Task Force specifically at the first meeting whether we could engage external consultants to facilitate our meetings so as to liberate me from the Chairman role and allow me to participate fully in the discussions. That was accepted by the Task Force and we had consultants to help us all the way through. Most of the discussion of the Task Force was not chaired by me but was facilitated by the external consultants."

  It is important to remember that the Task Force was sent up to advise the MRC Council on the basis of a wider consultation, after the recommendations of the FIS subcommittee had been so strenuously opposed by NIMR. It was not intended to be a totally independent, external inquiry into the institute, but was a means of drawing up further recommendations, against the backdrop of the FIS principles (which had been endorsed by Council), with wider consultation and a more open process. The composition of the Task Force reflected the desire for proper consultation and representation—two members of NIMR staff, two (originally three) external members nominated by NIMR, two members of Council, the head of a provincial medical school, the head of an overseas medical funding agency. Given this role for the Task Force, I think that it was essential that the CEO was present to represent the strategic interests of the MRC, and not least to provide some advice about financial constraints, and the broader context of the review. As I said on 1 December (and this is also recorded in a comment from Richard Flavell on 10 December), I expressed my reservations about chairing the Task Force at its first meeting, and I specifically asked approval for the appointment of consultants, not only to gather evidence and provide support for the Task Force, but also to facilitate the face-to-face meetings and conference calls, so that I would not be put in the position of steering the discussion and would be free to participate as a normal member of the group.

  I emphasise, then, that I actually chaired rather little of the meetings. This is relevant to some of the accusations in Robin Lovell-Badge's email of 17:47, 26 July. He wrote: "Should I feel suspicious that this was indeed the motive behind what I feel is indeed a notable failure of your chairmanship? This was to avoid a proper and full discussion of the Mill Hill bid at the fifth meeting, which you admitted was done deliberately because you knew that we would be unable to reach a unanimous view on this topic." Well, the irony is that I was not chairing the Task Force during the discussion of the Mill Hill bid. The meeting was, as usual, being facilitated by the consultants!

  Not only did I step aside from chairing meetings but I offered to give up the chair completely at the end of June, when Robin was so critical of my performance.

  In a message to Robin Lovell-Badge sent at 10:21 on 23 July, I wrote: "I have done my best to chair the TF fairly and to handle what was bound to be a very difficult process—given the complex nature of the issue and the history that hangs over it. Many people warned me in advance that they saw no chance of the TF achieving unanimity of opinion; but we did—for a time at least—and on some of the most important questions."

  I consider it a very significant achievement that, despite the wide range of starting positions, the Task Force did reach unanimous agreement on the preference for a move of the institute, as long as a better partnership agreement could be secured than could be achieved at Mill Hill. In his acrimonious message of 26 July, Robin Lovell-Badge wrote: "You say that you believe the Task Force has achieved unanimity of opinion. If it has, this has only been on ambiguously worded reports." But in reply to Q149, Paul Nurse said: "We thought—and this was, I think, universal across the committee—that a central London site was best." And to Q185 "We all were enthusiastic about central London." And in reply to Q182, Richard Flavell said "we had a consensus at the meeting".

What was the role of consultants? Did they do a good job?

  I have partly responded to this question above, describing the rationale for the appointment of consultants and the role that they played. In fact, I think that there was virtually universal approval of the performance of the consultants, who dealt intelligently, tactfully and efficiently with a very difficult brief.

  As Paul Nurse said, in reply to Q170: "I felt the consultants did a reasonable job and I have no criticism of them". And to Q171, Richard Flavell said: "The role of the consultants was quite essential and I think it was Colin who proposed it. He was very democratic about asking were we all in agreement about that and everyone was happy with it. They did an outstanding job. There is no way that we would have finished that process in those five meetings without that assistance."

Was there adequate consultation with NIMR staff?

  The general impression is that there was inadequate consultation with NIMR staff during the work of the FIS sub-committee, but I leave it up to the members of the FIS sub-committee to tell the S&T Committee whether that is correct.

  As far as the Task Force is concerned, its composition and workplan were specifically designed to counter the concerns about inadequate consultation: it is difficult to imagine a more transparent and consultative process. The Task Force included two members of NIMR staff and two (originally three) overseas experts nominated by NIMR, and Sir John attended significant parts of the meetings, to contribute to the discussion.

  Sir John was consistently unhappy about the whole idea of a strategic review but he did see and agreed to the Terms of Reference of the Task Force.

  I proposed to the Task Force at its first meeting that, in the interests of transparency, we should display all documents and communications on the Task Force section of the MRC website, except for messages that were judged too sensitive (perhaps because they named other individuals, universities or institutes). We all agreed to put "Confidential" at the head of any message that we specifically wished not to be displayed, but to use that designation as economically as possible.

  I and David Smith met with the NIMR "Action Group" (representatives of all the relevant unions) after each meeting, to report the outcome to them. I visited Mill Hill a total of eight times, and we held open discussion meetings as well as two days of consultative workshops there.

  There has been some criticism of the failure to produce comprehensive minutes of Task Force meetings, as if that was either a deliberate ploy to conceal the truth or simple incompetence on my part. In fact it was David Smith who proposed to the Task Force that we should concentrate on producing, as quickly as possible, short statements of the important conclusions of each meeting, rather than long, tedious minutes. The Task Force accepted this. In fact, given the difficulty of reaching agreement on even these short summaries, I hate to imagine how we could have obtained approval for full minutes.

  Indeed, it was the length of time that it took to reach agreement on the summary statements from the first three meetings that led us to decide to write and approve the summaries on the spot during the fourth and fifth meetings. The email record shows that, despite this, the summaries of those meetings too were subjected to prolonged attempts at revision after the meetings.

Was the "Mill Hill Option" properly considered?

  The statement from Heads of Division at NIMR, displayed on the NIMR website, states: "It is now apparent that the option of the Mill Hill site was not formally considered at the final Task Force meeting, even though a majority of those members present understood that it would be included in the Task Force recommendations to Council. We are frankly appalled by the mismanagement that, after all this time and effort, led to the failure of the Task Force to consider properly the Mill Hill site option." And, in his email of 26 July, Robin Lovell-Badge recorded "what I feel is indeed a notable failure of your chairmanship . . . This was to avoid a proper and full discussion of the Mill Hill bid at the fifth meeting."

  These are unfair caricatures of what actually happened. First, I must mention again that I was not chairing the meeting at the time of the general discussion about the various bids that were presented to the Fifth Meeting. That part of the meeting was facilitated by the consultants. Second, we spent roughly the same (short) amount of time discussing each specific bid. Most of the meeting was taken up with a broader, general discussion about the pros and cons of a possible move.

  Sir Paul Nurse made this clear in response to Q158:

    Dr Iddon: "Did the Task Force, Sir Paul, consider the prospect of the redevelopment of Mill Hill in as much detail as it considered the other two options? It sounds from your previous answers as if the answer to that is, `Possibly no'. Could I just underscore that?"

    Sir Paul Nurse: "I think, to be honest, we did consider it reasonably carefully. The focus did turn to central London for reasons to do with transport and contacts and semi-permeability with the higher education institutes, so we shifted from Mill Hill to central London fairly quickly, but I do think Mill Hill was considered as an option in a reasonable way."

  The fact is that the general discussion was terminated by Paul's remark: "It's obvious that Mill Hill is not an option in the long run". Sir John Skehel said, in reply to Q94 that Paul had denied saying this, but Paul himself said, in reply to Q147:

    "I definitely said that and I am happy to say why. I think there were two factors. One is that I happen to think that a central London location would be best . . . Why I felt that in the very long term Mill Hill would not be right was partly political. People have been taking pot-shots at isolated institutes for many years and I felt personally that for those political reasons it would be important to try and get the institute closer with a higher education institute so that the universities would not keep taking pot-shots at it."

  Also, I should point out to the S&T Committee that the previous discussion of the Task Force, during its first four meetings, was dominated by consideration of the merits of the Mill Hill site. Steve Gamblin and Robin Lovell-Badge supplied a great deal of documentary and oral evidence about the building, the site and the facilities, and the collaborations enjoyed by NIMR at Mill Hill. At one Task Force meeting we had presentations about future plans from several Heads of Division, and Sir John attended large parts of the meetings, bringing further evidence about the Mill Hill site.

  Overall, the Mill Hill site received enormously more attention from the Task Force than any other option.

Were the views of the NIMR representatives properly represented to council?

  There have been a number of suggestions that the opinions of Robin Lovell-Badge and Steve Gamblin were deliberately excluded from the final Report of the Task Force and were not properly presented to the MRC Council. For instance, the statement from Heads of Division at NIMR, which is still displayed on the NIMR website, says: "We also object to the arbitrary omission from the final Task Force report to Council of the views on this option of the two Task Force members from NIMR."

  The S&T Committee will be aware, from the email record, and from the oral evidence, that distinct differences of opinion about the status of the Mill Hill option emerged and strengthened during the extensive email exchange and the lengthy and well-attended telephone conference calls after the fifth meeting. In response to these unresolvable differences of opinion, I drafted the first version of paragraph 4.2 for the final Report, which records the differences, and this was refined and agreed at conference calls.

  The Committee will also know the circumstances of Steve Gamblin's last-minute demand for substantive changes in the final Report, presented on 21 July, and immediately opposed by the two other members of the Task Force who were in email contact. I tried my best to deal with that impossible situation, asking David Smith to incorporate as many of Steve' changes as possible, short of contradicting the form of words that we had all agreed in the conference call on 19 July. I also invited Robin and Steve to write their own account of their position for the Council meeting, and I asked the Council, at its meeting, essentially to ignore the relevant bullet points in the Executive Summary of the Task Force report and instead to read Robin and Steve's letter.

  In addition, I invited Richard Flavell to come to the Council meeting specifically to present the basis of the opinion of Steve and Robin, and of NIMR staff. In response to Q179 Richard said: "I was invited to present to Council and I really presented the arguments which I had solicited in part on Colin's request from Steve Gamblin so I could adequately present the Mill Hill representatives' views."

  Finally, Dick Denton and Kay Davies were also present at the Council meeting, to give further first-hand information about the work of the Task Force. The Council were in no doubt about the views of Steve and Robin, and their basis. Those views were thoroughly discussed. This is recorded in the Council minutes.

Why central London?

  Given the current political pressures to move public agencies and public servants out of the London area, many are surprised by the strong, unanimous recommendation from the Task Force that NIMR should not only stay in London, but, if feasible, should move from the leafy suburbs into the very centre.

  Now, the Lyons review has specifically excluded researchers from its remit to displace workers from London, presumably on the grounds that researchers are likely to depend crucially on particular local networks of contacts and collaborations. Nevertheless, some have expressed surprise that, if NIMR is to be moved, the opportunity has not been taken to reduce the concentration of MRC investment in London and to avoid the extra cost and inconvenience of a central London site.

  There was a single overriding argument that convinced all the Task Force, including the representatives of medical research outside the Golden Triangle, that NIMR should stay in London. That was the desire to keep intact existing, strong research groups.

  When the FIS sub-committee recommended a move to Cambridge, only about 40 miles from Mill Hill, the staff at NIMR objected very forcefully, on the grounds that key technical staff were unlikely to be able to move and therefore productive, skilled research groups were bound to be badly damaged. This argument was presented strongly to the Task Force by Robin Lovell-Badge and Steve Gamblin at its first and second meetings, and the argument was accepted unanimously.

  Although this was the central argument, additional reasons for preferring London were adduced by members of the Task Force. The overseas members argued (against the views of some others on the Task Force, it must be said) that an institute in London would more readily be perceived as "national" by people outside Britain. This argument was not critical, but for one or two on the Task Force, it carried some weight.

  Given the unanimous agreement that the renewed institute should evolve towards more translational research, a central London location was seen to offer some advantages for clinical interaction. Indeed, the Department of Health specifically approved the following paragraph for the final report of the Task Force:

    "Only a small number of locations in the UK would provide the population size and diversity, patients, clinicians and clinical facilities that are available in the London area. Where London currently has a unique advantage is in the extent of NHS funding for the service support for research at some London teaching hospital sites, facilitating research involving a very wide range of clinical specialties."

  Finally, the Task Force considered the broader strengths of the academic and commercial world of London. NIMR already has collaborations and other interactions with several London HEIs, and the Task Force felt that, if it were to move into central London, the huge concentration of scientific expertise in the capital would give it new opportunities for collaboration (not only with the host HIE), to extend even further its interdisciplinary range.

  The sum of all these arguments, but especially the first, convinced the Task Force that it should recommend that the institute should remain in London.

Would a sixth meeting of the TF have helped: would another meeting help now?

  In response to Q172-173, both Paul Nurse and Richard Flavell said that much of the business after the fifth meeting was conducted through "bilateral" phone discussions and that a further meeting might have helped to resolve differences. However, there was several long, well-attended telephone conference calls of the Task Force after the fifth meeting, including a final conference call on 19 June that was attended by all but two members of the Task Force and which lasted for some three hours. As Professor Flavell said: "There was at least one conference call in which a large number of us were present, I think possibly one person was not there, in which the fall-back option was discussed extensively, but we could not reach a consensus at that meeting."

  The "Mill Hill" option was very extensively discussed during those conference calls, but, far from moving towards consensus, the three different positions simply hardened. What was achieved was comprehensive scrutiny of the full Report, drafted with the help of a sub-committee including Robin Lovell-Badge, word-by-word approval of the Executive Summary, and the careful composition and approval of paragraph 4.2, which recorded the difference of opinion on the status of the Mill Hill site.

  It will be for others on the Task Force to give their views, but I had no impression that another face-to-face meeting at that time would have helped to resolve these differences of opinion.

  Now, Richard Flavell did refer to his suggestion that we might have a further meeting. In reply to Q171, he said: "I did say we should have a sixth meeting and we did not do it and I think that was a mistake." But I must make it clear that this suggestion was made late in August, after the Council had seen and accepted the Task Force report, and after the Task Force had been stood down. Richard had suggested another meeting only in the context our email discussion about how to respond to the Heads of Divisions' statement on the NIMR website. I do not think that he made this suggestion with any expectation that it would resolve the difference of opinion on the Mill Hill site.

  Would another meeting of the Task Force help now? To Q160, Paul Nurse said: "The Task Force was set up with a prescribed role. It was advising the MRC. It is the MRC whose job it is to sort all of this out, so it is up to the MRC what they do I think the MRC could reconvene the Task Force to try and see whether we could find a way through it but that would be more a political consideration than anything that it would absolutely have to do."

  And for Q163, Richard Flavell said: "I think that it would benefit the Council greatly to utilise the Task Force but, of course, that is their decision. I would completely stand by any decision they make on that point."

  My own view is that it would not be useful to hold another Task Force meeting now. There have been three meetings of Council since the Task Force reported, and the Council has taken over the process very completely. It set up a Steering Committee to gather the required evidence from KCL and UCL and it has received and considered the two bids, against the enhanced ("Step-Change") base case for the Mill Hill site. It has decided to send a visiting sub-committee to both UCL and KCL to clarify certain concerns about both bids.

  I am afraid that a further meeting of the Task Force, especially given the extreme hostility and serious accusations from NIMR, would be unconstructive and unpleasant. In present circumstances, it is hard to believe that such a meeting would become anything more than an arena for recrimination.

  However, it must be said that that Council has already recorded that if it finds both the KCL and UCL bids unacceptable, it will consult again widely, including among members of the Task Force, in order to decide how to proceed.

Is everything being done with unnecessary haste?

  The answer to this is a very firm "No". The need to conduct a strategic review of NIMR (as opposed to the normal QQRs of the science, was first discussed with Sir John Skehel in 1999, in the specific context of his forthcoming retirement in 2006. And the process was started in 2002, giving a decent lead time before his retirement.

  After more than two years of this review, the process is now of considerable urgency. If we are to secure a world-class scientist as the future Director of this, the largest single investment of public money in medical research in this country, we obviously must have a clear vision of its mission, its future size, facilities, and location, for the coming decades. The search for the new Director ought to begin more than a year before Sir John's retirement, which means that the Council must develop a clear view of the future before the summer of 2005. The timetable for that is already very tight. If we are unable to come to firm conclusions in time to make a new appointment in 2006, the destabilising effect on the institute could be very serious.

  To propose anything that would produce further delay would be potentially damaging to the process and to the future of NIMR.

Was the cost of the options properly considered?

  There have been complaints from NIMR about the inadequacy of the financial information available to the Task Force about the relative costs, and especially the capital costs, of the various possible options. On the other hand, firm statements about cost, not supported by full evidence, have been made by NIMR as arguments in favour of retaining NIMR at Mill Hill.

  The fact is that the initial discussions of the Task Force, for the first couple of meetings, were largely unconstrained by consideration of cost. I don't regret that. I think that it was absolutely correct for the Task Force to think freely about what would be best for the science, and then to test their views against the reality of what might be available, and what the cost implications might be.

  As Paul Nurse said (Q165):

    "We did not do a proper job on costings, nor could we have done, to be quite honest . . . we should be driven more by the science and by where better things could be achieved. I also thought that if there was a strong vision, which I think there is, the money would be found because we had many years in which to find it, so for me the costs became somewhat less important . . . I kept emphasising that during the Task Force, that this was a decision for 50 years and we should not be influenced too much by the short term costs of building."

  The MRC did engage Ove Arup to give rough estimates of the costs of renovation and rebuilding on the Mill Hill site, and we did have preliminary estimates of building cost from KCL and UCL, on which the Task Force sought and obtained some clarification. We also had an indication of the financial contributions that could be made by UCL and KCL, of the likely value of the Mill Hill site itself, of the MRC's ability to make a capital contribution, and of the mechanism for applying for further capital funding though the OST's Large Facilities Roadmap bidding process.

  However, even when the Task Force did consider costs, it could not perform a comprehensive analysis, because much more work was needed to work up full business plans. That has been done, and is still being done, as part of the options appraisal.

  I hope that the S&T Committee will agree with me that, although cost is obviously a factor in making this decision, it would be a failure if the Council were forced to chose the cheapest option if this is clearly not best for the science. We must be confident that the vision and the option chosen are so exciting that they will make a bid for the necessary funding totally compelling.

What about the split-site option? Why did it reappear on the agenda?

  Much has been made of the fact that the third meeting of the Task Force declared its unanimous preference for a single site for the renewed institute, but that a "split-site" proposal reappeared on the agenda of the fourth meeting. This has been cited as evidence of my "hidden agenda".

  The reason for the reappearance was made absolutely clear to the Task Force. It was fully aired in conference calls between the third and fourth meetings, and most of the Task Force agreed that this proposal should at least be considered at the fourth meeting.

  At the third meeting, having decided that it was interested in a single site in London (central London or Mill Hill), the Task Force instructed the secretariat to contact the heads of all the London medical schools and to ask them if they wished to present bids to host the institute on a single site. In fact, Imperial College and University College came back with a clear, preferred proposal to co-host the institute as a "federated" structure, retaining it all, but placing the major parts in settings that would, in their view, optimise the potential for collaboration with the host universities.

  When I saw this letter, and the enthusiasm with which it was presented, I thought that it would be embarrassing, even offensive, simply to dismiss it and exclude IC and UCL from the bidding process. Instead, I contact both universities and asked them whether they would, in addition, put forward single-site bids (which they eventually did, while still declaring their preference for the federated model).

  I also contacted the members of the Task Force to tell them what had happened and to ask whether, despite the previous general agreement, they would just consider the IC/UCL proposal at the next meeting—with no commitment. I must emphasize that I didn't try to persuade them to accept this option, only to consider it at the future meeting. A majority of the members were happy to do this. Others, especially Steve Gamblin and Robin Lovell-Badge, were clearly very upset, and saw this as a sinister development. It must be said that there is a very strong sense of unity at NIMR, and therefore a desire to stay together in the future.

  I personally saw some attractions in the federated model, and I thought that we would lose nothing by discussing it. We did discuss it, and it was clear that there was not general support for it. It was therefore abandoned.

Did I have a hidden agenda?

  There have been several accusations that either I had some hidden agenda from the start to close Mill Hill, or I was the puppet of some Machiavellian plot driven by "the MRC" or even perhaps the OST. This is absolute nonsense. At no point was I advised or pressurised by anyone to try to secure a particular outcome from the Task Force process. I reported briefly, from time to time, on the progress of the work of the Task Force to the Executive Board of the MRC, to the Chairman of Council, to Council as a whole (including the representative of OST), to Sir John Taylor and, after him, Sir Keith O'Nions, and, on two brief occasions to Lord Sainsbury. But none of these individuals or groups tried in any way to influence the work of the Task Force.

  When I opened the first meeting of the Task Force, I said, absolutely honestly, that I had no pre-formed views about the future of NIMR and I wanted to be informed by the discussion. And I asked everyone to try to set aside their initial prejudices and bring open minds to the table. That was not easy, especially given the history. When I did a "tour de table", immediately after this appeal, Steve Gamblin opened by giving a 20-minute review of the qualities of NIMR on the Mill Hill site! And several other members of the group declared particular starting opinions—concerns about the relative level of support for units and institutes compared to the university sector; concerns about the disproportionate MRC investment in the Golden Triangle; concerns about the balance of funding between basic and more clinically relevant research.

  I did not begin to form a personal view until after the third meeting of the Task Force. I expressed my opinions, just like everyone else, and no more forcefully than anyone else. I also continued to make sure that all the options were properly considered and I did not try to impose my views on the group. Indeed, my own opinion continued to evolve during the fourth and fifth meetings. I was just one of the group, honestly trying to contribute to an effort to arrive at a collective view about what would be best for the future of this institute. I did not have and do not have a hidden agenda.

December 2004





 
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