Memorandum from Professor Thomas A Steitz,
I write to comment on the proposals to move
the research labs of the NIMR at Mill Hill to another location,
which, as viewed from a distance, appear to be unwise.
1. I am Sterling Professor of Molecular
Biophysics and Biochemistry as well as a Howard Hughes Medical
Institute Investigator at Yale University. I have served as chairman
of my department and have served on the scientific advisory committees
of the Skirball Institute at New York University and the EMBL.
My field of research expertise is structural biology using X-ray
crystallography and focused on the proteins and nucleic acids
involved in gene expression. I have visited the NIMR at Mill Hill
once a few years ago to present a seminar and talk to some of
the investigators there.
2. It is not clear to me what the problem
is that is being fixed. Certainly their facilities would benefit
from an upgrade, but I would guess that everything necessary at
Mill Hill could be done for far less than the 200 million cost
of moving the labs. If the present members of the Mill Hill laboratory
are opposed to the proposed moves, and some might choose to go
elsewhere if it happens, there could be an additional cost to
the move that is difficult to estimate. Has anyone asked the research
directors at Mill Hill to express their opinions? It would not
be the less capable staff who might choose to find other opportunities.
3. While I can see some potential advantages
of a close proximity to university labs and hospitals for making
contact with potential collaborators, the reality is that large
size often works against productive new interactions. The research
investigators have to seek these interactions or have structured
informal opportunities to meet the right people. How is that going
to happen? I spent 2½ years at the MRC LMB in Cambridge and
witnessed very little, if any, interaction between the LMB and
the hospital and little of important substance with the University
(except for some great feasts). I am in a department that has
1/3 of its faculty in the medical school
and have witnessed almost no productive research interactions
with the clinical faculty, only the pre-clinical faculty of the
departments of cell biology, genetics, microbiology, physiology
and pharmacology; these are all areas already represented at Mill
Hill, I believe.
4. It also seems to me that the space constraints
for new construction in central London must be more severe than
at Mill Hill. What are the visions for any future development
of the NIMR and would it be possible to accommodate these at the
sites near University College, London or King's College? Would
it be possible, cost competitive and effective to bring clinical
research to Mill Hill rather than Mill Hill to clinical research?
I do not believe that top-down attempts to institute translational
research directed towards clinical problems will be effective,
here or in the UK, since that is not the history of how biomedical
research that transforms treatment possibilities has in general
happened. Revolutions start at the bottom with outstanding people
in the right environments.
5. I have a great respect for several lab
directors at Mill Hill who have voiced disapproval of a proposed
move. I strongly urge that you listen closely to them.
17 November 2004