Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Tony Magee, University of Manchester

  I have read the MRC's Forward Investment Strategy document and most if not all the documentation relating to the move of NIMR from Mill Hill to a central London site, as well as the responses of NIMR staff. I recognise that the MRC has to make sometimes difficult decisions about long-term funding and that it has pressure on it from many stake-holders trying to influence the direction of MRC research and funding. Nevertheless, in this case I fully endorse and support the negative responses of the NIMR staff to the move. Having been both a staff member at NIMR and in the University sector since 2001 I am of the opinion that the arguments for closing NIMR at Mill Hill and moving it to are erroneous and poorly justified by the MRC Task Force. The manner in which the process has been carried out is also highly questionable. The "consultation" process that the MRC carried out, which was very substantially against the move, seems to have been completely ignored by the Task Force. These concerns are shared by many of my colleagues and by The Biosciences Federation, although I don't speak for them.

  There are a number of issues. Firstly, NIMR is internationally acknowledged as a world class medical research institute. There is little if anything to gain from moving it to central London and a lot to lose. Having said that, there no doubt could be improvements to the way the Institute is run but these should be evolutionary and not involve the "nuclear option" proposed. The MRC already has two large institutes embedded in University/Medical School environments (the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and the Clinical Sciences Centre at Hammersmith Hospital/Imperial College London). Both of these are recognised as being very good basic science institutes but neither has a strong reputation for clinical research, despite their location (and the latter's name!). Historically, the MRC also had its hands burned in an earlier attempt to set up a clinical research institute, the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Hospital, which was a white elephant and closed in the 80s.

  It is essential that the MRC continues to fund basic research. MRC appears to be putting too much emphasis on clinical research at the expense of basic research. That's not to say that clinical research shouldn't be encouraged, but it should be driven by scientific and clinical need, bottom-up. In my view the major problem with stimulating clinical research in the UK is getting good young medics to consider getting involved in serious research—their present career structure does not encourage this and actually mediates against it, and this is only getting worse with changes to the NHS and medical school teaching. This issue needs to be addressed by Government and the NHS—the MRC cannot seriously make an impact in this area.

  Why are the MRC doing this—for ideological reasons or are they being driven by government? Or is the real rationale to close NIMR via the back door by a process of creeping emasculation. The proposed move of NIMR is likely to be poor value for money. The decision to exclude Mill Hill as the status quo option appears to have been made without comparing the relative costs and benefits of staying at Mill Hill with those of moving to central London. In the academic community there is a common misconception that moving NIMR will free up large amounts of money for response-mode funding but this is an illusion—it will actually cost money to move NIMR and put more pressure on MRC funding. The idea that the partner Colleges can make a large contribution to this seems unlikely. One of the major costs will be re-establishing an adequate animal facility at the new site and, given recent problems with animal rights activism in Cambridge and Oxford, this is likely to be a logistical nightmare also. If Government is going to provide extra money to the MRC (which would be needed to fund the proposed move of NIMR) it would be better used to improve the funding rate for MRC grants which has been very low for the last few years due to poor financial planning, as the Science and Technology Committee has previously investigated.

  The potential catastrophic loss of outstanding scientific staff at all levels (many leaving to take up appointments abroad) would be very damaging to UK biological science at a time when we are in a position to make a major international impact in a number of key areas. I strongly urge Council to reconsider these proposals in an open and rigorous manner.

12 November 2004

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