Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Stafford Lightman, University of Bristol

  First I think I should like to point out the obvious—that NIMR is a unique British centre of research excellence with a fantastic international reputation. It would be unthinkable to risk losing this jewel in our crown unless we had hard, good quality evidence that an alternative was at least as good if not better. The current situation is simply undermining NIMR, causing a major distraction for the scientists involved and a threat to future recruitment. There are several questions for which I would like to seek answers.

  1.  What is the true reason for the MRC's wish to move NIMR and the rationale behind the timing for this?

  2.  Why is it that the MRC has not listened to the views of the overwhelming majority of the scientific community? On both occasions that the community was consulted there was an overwhelming majority in favour of NIMR remaining at Mill Hill—but the MRC, rather than listening, seems to feel it knows better. There is a feeling of a small cabal wanting to impose their will on the scientific community.

  3.  Did we really need to pay for expensive consultants to canvass our views? I don't feel that this canvassing was helpful in any way and I am amazed that the MRC couldn't have done it themselves and saved the money and spent it on science!

  The key point appears to be the MRC's apparent emphasis on clinical translation. This is a very laudable aim—but the MRC show a lamentable lack of insight into the translational research process. Good translational research comes from the intellectual links between the best basic and clinical research scientists—who may be at any institution in the UK. NIMR already has superb links with clinicians (of their choice) all over the country and have been working with many young clinical scientists who are grateful to be out of range of their hospital pagers! It could certainly be argued that we should increase the numbers of clinicians collaborating with NIMR—but this could be done in a totally different way, for instance by creating a special fellowship programme to attract the very best clinical scientists to spend time at appropriate departments at Mill Hill. Moving NIMR to a London hospital site would be likely to reduce rather than increase the number of clinicians and clinical centres that would collaborate with NIMR and would thus decrease the potential for high quality collaborative translational research. I am amazed the MRC haven't learnt from the disasters they have had at the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park and now the CSC as well. Simply moving Mill Hill into the campus of a University hospital is actually likely to lower the standards of research, cause a loss of some of the top scientists to other centres abroad and only help—to some extent—the particular institution which houses the new centre and will uniquely benefit from an infusion of MRC money at the cost to all the other good translational research centres in the UK.

  It is simply not true that independent institutes cannot collaborate effectively unless they are physically rubbing shoulders with doctors. Most basic scientists are very keen to collaborate and to see their ideas put into a clinical setting. For them to have the widest choice of clinical collaborators is much more important than rubbing shoulders with people who might not be the most appropriate co-investigators.

  One of the great strengths of Mill Hill has been its critical mass in interdisciplinary interactions unlike the emphasis on intra-disciplinary critical mass forced on the Universities by the RAE process. It is the ability of structural biologists, bioinformaticists, neuroendocrinologists, parasitologists, physical biochemists and immunologists (for instance) to communicate together which really moves things forward. An example in my own sphere is that a neuroendocrinologist at Mill Hill noticed that the developmental biologists at the same institution had made a knock-out mouse which among other things had a neuroanatomical abnormality with similarities to the human condition of septo-optic dysplasia. This allowed this neuroendocrinologist to set up a collaboration with the developmental biologists and trained a clinician from Great Ormond Street to clone the human gene candidate, show it was responsible for the human disease, and worked out how this occurred. What we want to do is to make it easier to move the bright young doctors and scientists about and mix them up. This will allow us to spend our time fixing what is, in my opinion, the real problem—the careers of academic clinical scientists within the NHS environment.

  There are many other examples I could discuss which result in advances from fields as far apart as memory and malaria but the true point I want to make is that a move of NIMR to central London would be likely to reduce these collaborations and decrease our ability—as a country—to do good translational research. What we really need to do is to think positively about how to improve Mill Hill, make it more cost-effective and think of novel schemes to increase interaction with universities throughout the British Isles. I should, therefore, like to make three further points:

  1.  The cost of moving Mill Hill to a central London site would be enormous and I am not clear how the MRC will be able to create a large secure animal facility in a city centre site. Not only would the move cost a vast amount of money, but a lot of the scientists would not want to move into a very expensive part of central London and would be likely to leave—many of them abroad. I should therefore like to know what are the costs of the move into central London and how the MRC believes there are hypothetical benefits that can outweigh them.

  2.  I would like to suggest that the money could be far better spent in other ways. Not only could we increase the number of fellowships for clinicians to go to Mill Hill, but we could also make modest investments both at Mill Hill and building late translational facilities in several different hospitals around the UK (MRC clinical investigation units would be very cost effective), making the best of the science base at Mill Hill. We could, for instance, use their transgenic facilities to make animal models of disease.

  3.  Finally, I should like to share with you my great discomfort with the MRC's current approach to serving the scientific and translational needs of the UK. I believe the MRC has been introspective, listening only to those it wants to hear and not responding to the vast majority of biomedical scientists in the UK for whom funding from the MRC has become an increasingly distant wish. If this country didn't have the Wellcome Trust and the BBSRC also supporting our biomedical sciences, we would be a third world nation in terms of our science with all that would entail for our industrial base.

8 November 2004

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