Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Anne Cooke, Cambridge University

  As a member of the MRC organised team that site visited the Immunology Divisions at NIMR it should be stated that we found the science to be of the highest quality (top Alpha in all sections). It is my understanding that site visits to other Divisions in NIMR have found them to be equally impressive. We were extremely impressed by the ways in which the Immunology Divisions interacted together and with other divisions, utilising ideas and resources in ways that would not have been easily achievable if they were in University environments that I am familiar with such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial or UCL. The work in the NIMR divisions relies heavily on the use of animals (mice) and is greatly facilitated by the availability of state of the art animal house facilities on site. The scientists within these divisions are also interactive with groups outside NIMR. They are extremely helpful in providing the scientific community in the UK and abroad with novel mouse strains that kept to the highest standard of health (specific pathogen free). Such a facility is not easy to reproduce even de novo and its disappearance might lead to the scientists seeking positions elsewhere in the world and that would be a great loss to current and future members of the UK scientific community if these scientists were to leave the UK. The work in Infectious Diseases is carried out on a wide range of organisms including those that require Category 4 containment. The site at NIMR is secure both for this form of work and for animal experimentation.

  It has been suggested that NIMR might benefit form being moved to a central London site with closer proximity to a hospital. This presumably was suggested in the belief that it might lead to more translational research. It takes a very long time for a scientific advance to make its way from the bench to the bedside. TNF alpha therapy which has revolutionised the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis has taken more than 13 years to get to that stage. It was pioneered by researchers at the Kennedy Institute for Rheumatology and trials for this were carried out with clinicians around the world. Trials are normally carried out where the patient groups are available and they are not necessarily at the hospital next door. I work in the University of Cambridge with a hospital relatively close by but my clinical associates are in Glasgow and America. Scientists involved in biomedical research carry out their research because they want to understand how systems work, why they sometimes break down and how they can be repaired. When they translate their findings to the clinic this is done in collaboration with those clinical colleagues who have the relevant patient group, wherever these are available.

  There have been previous attempts by the MRC to bring science and medicine together. The Clinical Sciences Centre at Northwick Park was one such attempt. This was perceived not to be working and some of the scientists were then moved to The Hammersmith Hospital. A very good animal facility was left behind at Northwick Park and several scientists who had been moved struggled for many years to carry out comparable research at the Hammersmith site. It has never been stated how much these moves cost the MRC in the past and now another move appears to be planned. Such a move cannot save money if you have to rebuild the existing facilities that are available and function well at NIMR. As a committee member I perceive a lack of MRC funds available to fund young scientists at key stages in their careers. I am additionally dismayed by the news that in the last round of applications for programme and project grant funding only 50% of the top rated grants (alpha A) could be funded. That means good biomedical science is not being funded and our future research capacity in the form of young scientists are not being encouraged to see biomedical sciences as a career option worth pursuing.

  It is difficult to understand the scientific rationale for tinkering with something that works well. I am sure that NIMR could be used more effectively eg run specialist training courses, conferences, take in academics or clinicians for study leave etc where it currently situated. The case for moving it downtown with attendant security issues has not been fully explained to the community at large. The security issues are not trivial. In this age of concern about bioterrorism it seems strange to move Category 4 work to Central London. Additionally it costs a lot of money to secure a building in Central London against the Animal Liberation Front?

  In summary I am deeply concerned that moving NIMR to Central London will be costly and will further jeopardise the biomedical research base in the UK. The move has not been completely justified to the wider scientific community and the cost implications have not been made clear. The idea of breaking up something that works really well and is more than a sum of the parts seems strange when not fully justified and runs the risk of losing top class scientists from the UK.

15 November 2004

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