Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Supplementary evidence from Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive, Medical Research Council


Professor Blakemore's comments are shown in italics

From Steve Gamblin—NIMR

Response to Select Committee Questions

CB:  All email and other correspondence, whether or not marked Confidential, has now been sent to the S&T Committee. I urge the Committee to look at all of it, not only selected, out-of-context messages.

CB:  The "handing over to consultants" was a decision supported by the entire Task Force, including Dr Gamblin, at its first meeting. I suggested the engagement of experienced consultants for several reasons, all of which were agreed by the Task Force. The main reason was because the only alternative for the collection of material, the conduct of consultation and the management of meetings was MRC Head Office staff, of whom the staff at NIMR claimed to be deeply suspicious. As in Dr Lovell-Badge's submission, there is reference to my "agenda". I had none, and made that quite clear to the Task Force at the start of its business. Indeed, I asked all the members to set aside any initial prejudices that they might have had about the future of NIMR and to enter the discussion with an open mind. Some were better at doing this than others. When Dr Gamblin was asked simply to introduce himself at the first meeting of the Task Force, he proceeded to talk for 20 minutes about the benefits of NIMR remaining at Mill Hill. You will notice that Dr Lovell-Badge acknowledges that I showed no sign of having formed an opinion until after the third meeting: I was probably the last person on the Task Force to express any specific view. The criticisms of the process that Dr Gamblin now articulates as if they were voiced thoughout the process did not emerge until after all the meetings of the Task Force were over. I hope that the S&T Committee will discover for themselves the views of the "international Task Force colleagues".


CB:  The role of the Task Force was not to duplicate that of the last QQR but to conduct a strategic review its future on a 20-50 year time-scale, specifically in the context of the impending retirement of the Director.


CB:  There was a wide consultation of leaders of research institutes and HEIs around the world. If Dr Gamblin thought that the evidence considered by the Task Force was inadequate, why did he not raise this during the meetings of the Task Force?


CB:  It is curious that the views of Professor Tomlinson are quoted as if to support the view that NIMR on the Mill Hill site can quite adequately support collaboration with clinicians when Professor Tomlinson himself has been absolutely consistent in his view that co-location with a hospital and HEI is the only acceptable future for the institute. I urge the S&T Committee to read Professor Tomlinson's submission and to ask him directly.


CB:  It is incorrect to say that 4/7 "thought that the Mill Hill site was a potential long-term option" during the fifth meeting. Indeed, the discussion was very much influenced by a remark from one member of the Task Force, remembered distinctly by David Smith and all the consultants, as well as by me and other member present, namely "Mill Hill is not an option in the long run." That remark was acknowledged by all and was immediately followed by the drafting of the "Conclusions" document and its approval by all present, including Dr Gamblin. Everyone, including Robin and Steve, agreed that the Conclusion document should record the preference for a move. But, a couple of days after the meeting, despite the fact that the Conclusions had already been agreed by them, Robin and Steve raised the question of the Mill Hill site. There was extensive discussion by email and during telephone conference calls and the wording of one section of the Conclusions was changed to record the fact that a move would occur only if the opportunities for partnership with a university were more attractive than would be possible between a university and NIMR remaining at Mill Hill. A week after the fifth meeting, when everyone else had agreed to the final form of words, Robin, for the first time, attempted to have the document changed further to record the Mill Hill site as an equal third option. It was at this stage that I offered him the opportunity to record his disagreement with the Conclusions, which would than have become a majority rather than a unanimous report. He agreed to sign up to the Conclusions as agreed to everyone else. During the following discussion, leading up to the completion of the final report, the issue of the Mill Hill site became dominant, and the irreconcilable differences of opinion, were recorded in the final report. Robin and Steve supported Mill Hill as an equal third option, Paul and Richard proposed that the Mill Hill site might be viewed as a "fall-back", while both continuing to state their own preference for a move to central London, and the remaining five members thought that it would be preferable to explore first the two preferred options—UCL and KCL.


CB:  The version of the Conclusions that I gave to Sir Keith O'Nions and Sir Anthony Cleaver had been approved unanimously be everyone present at the fifth meeting on the preceding day, including Dr Gamblin. At that stage no-one expected that this document would change, and I was asked to communicate its contents to all those who had given presentations to the Task Force on behalf of the London HEIs and Mill Hill. The record of emails shows how unexpected it was that there was any subsequent discussion on wording. In fact, the further changes were minor and I supplied Sir Keith and Sir Anthony with revised versions of the report as soon as it was finally agreed.


CB:  This is such an unfair representation of what actually happened! As the email exchanges clearly show, the demand for a whole raft of changes was submitted past a deadline agreed by everyone (including Steve and Robin) who participated in the last telephone conference call, when only three other Task Force members were in contact (myself, Kay Davies and Dick Denton). They all objected immediately to the substantive changes proposed. I did the fairest thing that I possibly could to represent Robin and Steve's views, without totally disenfranchising the rest of the Task Force. I asked Robin and Steve to prepare their own statement, which was circulated to the MRC Council, alongside the report that had been agreed by everyone else. What else could I have done in the circumstances?


CB:  This briefing paper simply provided the background for the full report of the Task Force, which was "the primary information given to the MRC Council", together with the letter from Drs Gamblin and Lovell-Badge. The report described fully the conditionality of the recommendation and the hope that a start towards the new vision could be made on the Mill Hill site.


CB:  I know nothing of this allegation, and I suggest that David Smith, Secretary to the Task Force, or Heather Bell of McKinsey is asked about it. What I do know is that some individuals who were interviewed did not wish their views to be disclosed to the Task Force.


CB:  The decision to concentrate on London for the future location of the Institute was indeed a strong recognition by the Task Force of the likely break-up of research groups from NIMR if there were to be a longer-distance move. If I understand the final sentence correctly, Dr Gamblin is referring to the long list of changes suggested changes in the final report of the Task Force that he and Dr Lovell-Badge submitted after the deadline for minor corrections, and in contradiction of the agreement of the approval of the Task Force at the telephone conference call two days before. As documented in the series of emails, this was opposed by the three other members of the Task Force who were in contact at that time.

CB:  Of course it was important to take account of the views of present staff at Mill Hill (and the restriction of considerations of location to London was an indication of this). However, it must be said that the function of this strategic review is to decide how to deploy the huge public investment in NIMR to the best advantage of medical research as a whole in this country. It is not simply to provide the current staff with their preferred outcome. The review is considering a 20-50 year timescale, a time when most of the current staff will no longer be at NIMR.


CB:  To say that "the process was not driven by financial considerations" but that "only a certain sort of recommendation would be acceptable on financial grounds" is a parody of the way in which the Task Force worked. As explained above, we did indeed start with a broad philosophical discussion unconstrained by financial considerations. But it was always clear that we would have to consider the financial implications and we began to do this from our third meeting. However, it was also clear that the Task Force would not have detailed business cases and indeed that it was not part of its remit to make a full analysis of such cases. That will be for the Council to do on the basis of evidence presented by KCL and UCL.

December 2004

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