Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Thomas A Steitz, Yale University

  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

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