Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Jonathan Cooke


  Recently retired long term Scientific Staff member at NIMR (1973-2001), having occupied roles from postdoctoral researcher to Head of Division (middle manager with continued scientific career). Diverse connections (possibly more so than typical for senior NIMR staff members) with biomedical researchers at various career levels in UK and abroad. While having enjoyed my career there, I have been out of the NIMR environment long enough to have shed certain irrational attachments to its site and character that I believe current senior staff may be displaying. I retain a concern for the future shape of biomedical research in UK and regard the overall decision-tree currently arrived at by MRC in relation to NIMR as a brave and forward-looking one. I do not see impropriety in the processes that have led to it, but understand some history that may shed light on why some are trying to claim this (see below). I feel that any process that forced MRC to retreat from what they currently refer to as their "compelling vision" in this matter (see their website under NIMR future), would cause a far-reaching opportunity to be lost without good grounds.


  Under its previous chief executive, Sir George Radda, two or three years back, MRC reached a decision radically to transform and to relocate to Cambridge the grouping of in-house scientists that is NIMR, currently located at MILL HILL. It turned out that crucial features of this plan, notably the proposed siting in the biomedical complex outside Cambridge, were logistically "not on". But the arguments for major change including downsizing of this portion of MRC's long term commitment, were as persuasive then as now (see elsewhere and below). Unfortunately, the secretive way in which MRC Head Office handled the issue, then chose to announce their finished plan to senior NIMR staff (including its current scientific director who did not then, and still does not, himself have good relations with HO) was managerially inept and high-handed. The announcement provoked an understandably outraged reaction by the staff. The more recent course of events should all be seen in the light of this background.

  The current CEO Prof Colin Blakemore inherited the unenviable situation that the decision-making process on NIMR must be re-run, taking account of political correctness (ie, quite properly, openness of process), but also with an absurdly overbalanced degree of consultativeness, that had been extorted from MRC by the originally outraged staff. This was that NIMR staff members themselves should form a substantial portion of the "taskforce" or consulting and information-gathering body, that MRC now set up to re-appraise the long-term options for deployment of the NIMR part of MRC resource. Certainly we live in times when a spirit of participatory democracy is generally to be encouraged, but is there any precedent for employees who are doing the shop-floor work of a major government-funded organisation (viz MRC scientists) to expect to participate in, and almost exert a veto over, the highest level of strategic decision-making by that organisation's managers? The decision does concern optimal deployment of national financial resources. Prof Blakemore and colleagues have had the difficult task of trying to steer the strategic decision-taking within this ultra-participatory framework (I believe not of Blakemore's choice but already promised before he took office), where the NIMR scientist input has quite clearly only ever had one objective (preservation of the Mill Hill Institute) in mind. Despite that input, and perhaps input from those NIMR has directly lobbied for its cause, MRC has again arrived at the overall conclusion that the character appropriate to a future version of NIMR in the 21st century, or at least to the future deployment of the public resources that currently go into it, would not be attained at the Mill Hill site. This seems a brave and a forward-looking decision to most observers in the wider scientific community (see Arguments, below), but the NIMR contingent will not accept it. They seem to be claiming that over-riding of their colleagues' views on a task force may constitute impropriety. Major change always entails disruption for employees in the middle of their careers (schools, neighbourhood ties, spouse jobs etc), but MRC scientists' contracts clearly state the in-principle liability to be re-deployed wherever else, within UK, MRC strategy may need to place them.

  To reach their goal, the scientists who have triggered the present review rely on MRC not being able to identify a site elsewhere in London that will take all major research groupings of the present institute. They would then claim that a retreat to the "Mill Hill option" was a promised alternative, and that any other proposal (involving separate new sites for groupings within the present NIMR) represents some sort of betrayal by MRC Head Office. They may even claim that a relocation of a whole new institute in a more central London site, should this become a possibility, represents results of impropriety of some kind. They recognise the need to mount science-based arguments for their preference. But in all their submissions, it is easy to detect the irrational components of attachment that are felt by long-term occupants of any workplace where intense and exciting work has been done, and where certain "out-of-hours" facilities have been set up to compensate for its otherwise marginal (because outer suburban) location. Although it has elicited this sort of affection in many of its longer-term inhabitants—I too have felt this and enjoyed my time there—the current NIMR site is NOT perceived as charming, in its favour, or advantageous by EITHER the majority of the scientific community OR, importantly, talented potential new recruits from within UK or from overseas. The eminent biomedical researchers that MRC recruited into their decision-taking process concurred that, while preservation of the great majority of research effort from NIMR as one grouping or community was desirable if at all possible (ie an "NIMR" equivalent should still exist), this should not be at the present site. This is because the new character that the envisioned research institute must have could not plausibly be supported there (see Arguments, below).

  The belief professed by NIMR senior staff, that a majority of the biomedical research community supports their preference for retention of the current site, is an illusion caused by distorting social forces that operate within a small community such as the UK (and particularly the SE England "golden triangle"). It is important for parliamentary members, maybe not familiar with the workings of science research, to recognise these distorting forces, which operate as follows. Senior scientists at NIMR are, ipso facto, potential major shapers of the fortunes of peers elsewhere, as reviewers of their work and their submissions for funding of further work, editors of prestigious journals etc etc. They are currently in crusader, almost one might say gangster psychological mode on this issue, whereby anyone professing frankly not to share their position on what is best for the future, is seen as "against them" and their enemy in some broader sense. Thus unfortunately, Machiavellianism often prevails when other individuals are directly asked for their views, and NIMR staff walk through a world that concurs with their views. Though both MRC and, earlier, NIMR itself have sought unattributed views via websites and so forth, these are sufficiently effortful to lodge that few without strong personal stakes in outcomes get around to doing so. Because my chosen mode of retirement doesn't give cause for guardedness in others, I am perhaps a better sampler of general opinion than a currently higher-profile scientist would be. In my experience most assume that the decision, that will in due course undo what they have always felt to be a geographically bad siting of a major resource package, has already been made and they welcome it. Nor is it true, as has been alleged, that there is general distaste in the university-based research community for an institute, because of the privileged status of staff members within it. It is recognised that with the current character of biomedical science, institutes have their place, but that this should be in close conjunction with major sites for the teaching and the translation into practice of biomedicine.


  Main arguments on both sides must have been laid out already, and available to select committee members; here I add in only remarks that come from a long-term familiarity with the present, Mill Hill site.

  Whatever is felt about this by some older scientists, we have entered an era where the total style package offered by a potential environment is an important factor in job choices among the younger age-group who are in the course of doing their best scientific work. This is as true of clinician scientists as of "blue skies" ones. On these grounds, whatever its structural soundness, the Mill Hill site would need so total a transformation, in order to make it competitive with others that have been purpose-built for the biomedical science of more recent eras, as to approach the cost of a new building. Without this, MRC would be at a continual disadvantage in recruitment of the best younger laboratory leaders; the perpetual process of refurbishment for new workers at Mill Hill only ever produces a token gesture towards adequacy and is a continual drain on finances. The particular group of senior (near retirement) NIMR staff members who are most opposed to MRC's plans, including its director, are quite impervious to this vital "style" factor in the pulling power of a modern environment after their long-term acculturation to the charms of their surroundings.

  Without some unimaginable change in the transportation system, the Mill Hill location really does disadvantage the current institute. This has always been perceived by collaborators from elsewhere and by visitors, but the degree of intercommunication that will be normal for the translational biomedical science of the future cannot but intensify the disadvantage. Indeed, if translational research and experimental medicine (see MRC's own material for definitions of these terms) are to be a renewed institute's remit, it is hard to see how continued Mill Hill siting could even be contemplated. A large hospital and presumably medical school would need to be set up/ translated there also. More rational surely to translate the research facility to the others. Certainly, current Mill Hill staff do have an extensive internal and external network of collaborations, but the latter could only be enhanced by re-siting. The institute's geographically isolated position has led to a certain pattern whereby, if collaboration across expertises becomes indicated in a research project, the first impulse is to say "we've got it in-house" and look no further. The best researchers worldwide, try to forge collaborations on the basis of real commonality of interest and expertise level. Seen in this way, the advantages of having such a diverse collection of disciplines in one place, and an isolated place at that, begin to look less compelling. This issue points up the basic discrepancy, as I understand it, between the decision-tree that MRC has arrived at and the preference expressed by NIMR senior staff. This is between placing the highest priority on appropriateness of location, while giving only second importance to keeping all grouping of scientists in one place (desirable if possible), or alternatively preserving the institute as a single entity at all cost. My feeling based on my extensive time there, is that what would be lost by any separation of the major viable groupings within the present institute, does not match what would be gained by re-housing each grouping in scientifically and geographically appropriate surroundings.

  I have more than once heard the present director of NIMR express exasperation at what an uphill task it was to get appropriate "bigshots" finally to bite at offers of positions at Mill Hill. Certainly, over the last 15-20 yrs, I have been aware that several such "bigshots", who also happened to be personal acquaintances, chose other opportunities because of the siting and style factors outlined in the above paragraphs. With the altered remit for an institute of the future, those disadvantages can only become more acute, and could only be partially offset by the most massive investment by government via MRC.

  A final factor, that may seem an irrelevant detail for purposes of a parliamentary review, concerns the important experimental animal housing facility currently at Mill Hill. This facility specialises successfully in maintaining animals with a stringently defined health status, necessary for certain categories of the work that is done there and elsewhere in UK, and is regarded a nationally significant by the community of people doing those kinds of work. For reasons that are not clear, but that can hardly have to do with Mill Hill as a geographical location, it has proved difficult to attain these conditions reliably in many other UK animal facilities in recent years. The broad grouping of scientists known as the Infections & Immunity super-group at Mill Hill is currently that whose overall level of distinctiveness and contribution, in its fields, most conforms with the criteria that are supposed to justify research-dedicated institutes in general. It will thus be important, whether any relocation is of a whole (downsized?) institute, or of major groupings to separate sites, that this particular scientific grouping is given the opportunity of remaining together and with access to a specialist animal facility that can hope to match the current one. The present animal facility alone, however, cannot in my view possibly tip the balance against broader science-based arguments such as the above, in favour of the conservative option of a whole institute remaining at Mill Hill.

17 November 2004

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