Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Alan R North, University of Manchester

  I am writing to you with respect to the forthcoming inquiry of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. I write in a personal capacity. You will see from the attached biographical sketch that I trained in both medicine and science, I have held professorships in leading research universities and institutions in the United States, and I have also worked as a scientist for a leading pharmaceutical company. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal College of Physicians. For more than three years I have served on the Medical Research Council, and I was a member of the group constituted by Professor George Radda to develop a Forward Investment Strategy for the MRC's intramural research programme.

  The UK government spends very little on medical research. Taken in the context of the National Institutes of Health or even major pharmaceutical research companies the spend is derisory. The MRC Board that I currently chair is unable to fund many of the applications that it receives which are rated by peers as being of the highest international quality. We struggle to recruit and retain, and continue to haemorrhage leading brains to the US. Only last week I was dispiritedly writing a letter of recommendation for a quite outstanding young colleague, actually an MRC employee, who is seeking to relocate to the United States. I present this background context because I feel that it emphasises how critical is the obligation of the MRC to plan for the future so as to get the greatest possible value for its very limited monetary investment.

  I believe that this future must involve two key elements. The first is a very substantial input into biomedical research from the physical sciences. Most major advances in life sciences of the past 30 years have been led by technology developments lifted straight from the world of physics and/or chemistry. Usually, these have been made by those who are able comfortably to straddle the two worlds of physical science and life sciences.

  Furthermore, a new biology has emerged from the genomes in which the world of interacting molecules can be understood only by sophisticated mathematics. Leading institutions around the world are developing new institutes and centres to bring together their biologists with their mathematicians and physical scientists: Stanford, Harvard, University of Washington, Princeton all have them. Such institutes will power research and training in biomedicine over the next decades.

  The second element is the need for more translation of fundamental discoveries in medical research. I see two components, wealth and health. There are now many examples of the successful commercial exploitation of fundamental medical discoveries: indeed, some bring financial benefit back to the MRC itself. In their early stages, these transitions are much facilitated by physical proximity between scientist and entrepreneur; hence the success of "bioincubators". However, it is the health component that has received much recent emphasis. This is because advances in genetics and genomics have strikingly narrowed the gap between disease and the molecular understanding of disease. Twenty-five years ago, we could do little more than simply describe most human diseases: molecular mechanisms were something to dream about. It is the narrowing of this gap between molecular mechanism and disease process which has so suddenly enabled so-called translational research—research in which the fundamental mechanistic questions are directly informed by a human disease. This will form an increasingly important ingredient of medical research in the next 25 years.

  Much of the discussion in the past couple of years, indeed much of the protest, has focussed on the quality of the science at Mill Hill and the disruption that might be caused by a move. This is a side-show. The quality of the science at Mill Hill has never been in question. The MRC has formal procedures for assessing that quality and I know nobody who disputes the process or its results. The disruption that would be caused by a move would be substantial, but forgotten in five to 10 years. The forward investment strategy must look considerably beyond that.

  I imagine a National Institute of Medical Research in which physics undergraduate student can be inspired by serendipitously attending a lecture by the professor of medicine, where a materials scientist meets weekly with his colleague studying plaque formation in coronary arteries, where computer scientist and neurologist collaborate intimately on human cognition and its decline in the elderly, and where fellows in an interdisciplinary postgraduate clinical training programme are excited about their future careers. I can not imagine this in a leafy London suburb.

15 November 2004

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