Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor N J Rothwell, former member of the MRC Task Force on the NIMR

  As background, I served as a Council member of MRC from October 2000 until July 2004. During that time I chaired two of the boards (Physiological Medicine and Infections 2000-02, Neuroscience and Mental Health 2002-04), I served on many other boards including Strategy, Awards advisory, Training and careers development, Clinical trials and Animals in research. I chaired many reviews of MRC units and some institutes. I was a member of the Forward Investment Strategy (FIS) group which initially considered the future of MRC's institutions (which included NIMR). I was not a member of the subsequent Task Force but discussed its progress and recommendations at council.

  I will comment on two aspects of the review—the process and the recommendations.


  This is one of the most extensive, rigorous and consultative reviews of science in the UK that I have observed. It involved many UK and international scientists, national consultations and direct and regular involvement of NIMR staff. The Chief Executives of MRC, and most probably Professor Blakemore, made numerous visits to NIMR, and many Council members including myself had extensive discussions with NIMR Staff collectively and individually (I visited NIMR twice). Leading international advisors were engaged, and I understand that the NIMR representatives initially agreed to accept the recommendations of the Task Force. Members of Council, FIS and (I understand) the Task Force entered discussions without preconceived ideas, and were all heard equally. There have been suggestions that there was a predefined "agenda" from within MRC head office—I had absolutely no experience of this at any time, and believe that such suggestions are completely unfounded.


  There is no easy solution to the future of NIMR—as the many hours, days and weeks of discussion have revealed. I fully understand the concerns of staff at NIMR—relocation will inevitably be disruptive, but is undertaken quite frequently in the commercial sector. I believe that the principle of the recommendations is well founded—for the future of NIMR, and most importantly for the future of biomedical research in the UK. Indeed it is critically important to consider NIMR in the national context. It is increasingly difficult to maintain "stand alone", major research facilities which require significant underpinning infrastructure. The very name National Institute for Medical Research indicates that the majority of the research should be medical or medically related. I recognise interactions with clinical colleagues particularly in London is arduous, but my own experience of clinical research is that it is very difficult without a direct and geographically close relationship with a medical school and teaching hospital. I believe that the future success of NIMR depends on its close proximity to a major University, Medical School and hospital.

  I visited NIMR twice during my membership of FIS. It was then that I saw the distance they were from central London and the poor state of some of their laboratories and general infrastructure. The future costs of maintaining NIMR were very much secondary to discussions at MRC, but are not trivial. I cannot imagine how MRC can meet the real investment needed to maintain the position of NIMR as a leader in biomedical research.

  Finally, I would comment that NIMR is an extremely important and valuable part of MRC's research portfolio, but the time and effort expended on what I believe has been an essential, though difficult review, is now starting to threaten MRC's other work. The difficult discussions and recommendations made recently may have been better undertaken 10 years ago. If they are not made now, they will need to be revisited regularly in the near future.

16 November 2004

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