Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor William Russell, University of St Andrews

  1.  The proposals for the future of NIMR at Mill Hill have been under consideration since early in 2003 when a sub committee of the Medical Research Council (MRC) was given the task of examining the Council's Forward Research Strategy and recommended that NIMR at Mill Hill should be closed and moved to Cambridge. The rationale for this recommendation was very poorly explained and since none of the over 700 scientists employed were consulted (including the Director) it was not surprising that the statement was met with incredulity and considerable anger. This very insensitive move by the Council has resulted in significant loss of morale amongst the staff at Mill Hill and has made it difficult for all to move into a more co-operative mode.

  2.  Responding to a consultation, the Council (with a new Chief Executive) created a Task Force with national and international members (nominated both by the MRC and NIMR) and with two NIMR staff to re-examine this issue. The Task force reported in July this year and recommended that NIMR should be closed and moved to a site in London proximal either to University College or King's College. However there has been a dispute between the MRC and NIMR about the reporting of the proceedings of the Task Force and this has not yet been fully resolved. Nevertheless, the MRC has appointed a steering group to prepare the business and scientific cases for removing NIMR to the central London sites.

  3.  Of particular concern to the Mill Hill scientists is that while they can understand the need to examine the financial and scientific implications of any move they do not understand why the Mill Hill site cannot be included in the comparisons. At the last MRC meeting on 13 October the Director noted that the NIMR senior staff has already had consultations with the scientists at both London sites and his conclusion was that it was unlikely that neither of them would be able to provide the facilities that were already present at Mill Hill (eg there are excellent facilities for dealing with transgenic animals and bio-containment). At this meeting the Director reiterated the case for including Mill Hill in the options appraisal and the Council thereafter accepted that for an appraisal to be valid "the base case should be enhanced to set out what would be required at Mill Hill in order that the renewed institute could meet as closely as possible the Task Force vision". In many respects this moves the situation forward from that pertaining when the Science and Technology Committee called for a Review although the MRC are emphasising that the status quo is not an option. There are many questions still to be answered and there are a number of ambiguities in the current position of the MRC who evidently wish the London sites to be given prime consideration and are apparently wanting to come to a conclusion about a preferred site and partner by the December meeting of the Council (although this may now be deferred).

  4.  It is perhaps surprising that the MRC did not at any stage advocate the move as part of a package to divert resources away from NIMR given that a significant component of the MRC budget (£25 million pr annum) is currently spent at Mill Hill and that there are great pressures on resources not least from those with unfunded alpha-rated project grants. Indeed looking superficially at the proposals by the Council it would seem extremely costly to move into the central London sites and it will be revealing to examine the detailed costings which may reveal if the new site envisaged by the Council is a much more limited operation compared to the current one. Thus, it may be that costs are one factor but this has apparently never been admitted. It is also clear that the Council have never disputed that NIMR is currently carrying out excellent research.

  5.  The main driver for the MRC's policy with respect to NIMR appears to be their belief that, in the longer term, biomedical research will blossom in an environment in close proximity to clinicians and other disciplines. This attitude, in part, may have been influenced by their experience with clinical research when a Clinical Research Centre was created at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow in 1972. However the Centre was moved in 1999 to central London at Hammersmith Hospital (Imperial College) presumably because the academic environment there was much more attractive to clinicians. To counter this argument the staff at Mill Hill can claim with justification that they already co-operate effectively with clinicians and others at both the national and international level.

  Those of us who have worked in the biomedical research field in Scotland can testify to the fact that effective co-operation is achieved not by proximity but by a sharing of complementary interests and there are now many examples of joint projects both in teaching and research across HE institutions and research institutes in Scotland. Thus I am not persuaded by this argument for proximity.

  6.  While I can appreciate that the MRC are concerned that biomedical research in the future may have to be more broadly based and that the case for a "stand-alone" institute in these circumstances may be suspect there is the counter argument that the Mill Hill site has plenty of room for redevelopment and moreover that there may be positive advantages in NOT being cited in central London eg NIMR has proposed through their quinquennial review to upgrade their activities in the field of emerging infections. This will be especially relevant to the concerns about climate change and the likelihood of new diseases appearing in Britain. An important corollary to this objective is the availability of high class containment facilities. The Mill Hill site already has these and it would seem unlikely that these facilities would be readily made available in central London. Another major concern is that the excellent animal facilities which are now well protected from the all too prevalent animal rights extremists (at great cost) would have to be duplicated on a crowded central site.

  Another facet to this question is that if the central London option is adopted this will lead to yet more pressure on housing and transport in Central London and the consolidation of the Golden Triangle of research funding. Perhaps we should seriously consider that more dispersion of physical resources to the regions would be advisable considering the availability of electronic communication (eg Scotland has excellent ongoing biomedical research and in the longer term offers a greater quality of life for scientists).

  In conclusion, the impasse which has arisen must be resolved quickly and in such a way that the staff at NIMR as well as the Council can feel able to move forward in a co-operative mode. Biomedical research is at a critical stage and the prospects of real advances have never been better. The proposal to move to a site in central London seems ill advised given the constraints there for future development.

15 November 2004

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