Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Jackie Wilbraham



  1.  The UK has the opportunity to create a new world-class biomedical research institute based on an established internationally competitive research centre that will contribute greatly to the understanding of disease and through improvements in healthcare, bring benefit to patients. This in turn will result in improvement to the UK economy. The biomedical research base underpins future drug discovery and development and as such is of vital important to the continuing success of the highly productive UK pharmaceutical industry. Consequently, such an opportunity should be carefully thought through.

  2.  The MRC should consider thoroughly the strategic role of the NIMR and how it operates alongside the Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC) and the Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB). The challenge for the MRC is to describe a clear vision with a strategy that encompasses basic research into disease mechanisms, translational science, clinical research, training and patient benefit. The MRC should use this opportunity to re-align the work of the LMB, NIMR and CSC.

  3.  It is our view that the LMB should investigate fundamental aspects of molecular and cell biology and be the major centre for structural biology in the UK. The NIMR should focus on basic physiology and cell biology applied to understanding normal biological processes and disease mechanisms, particularly in priority areas such as diabetes and obesity, cancer and respiratory diseases. Responsibility for translational science should be part of the remit of the CSC, which should also conduct clinical research into major diseases including diagnosis, prognosis and disease progression.

  4.  The work of the NIMR should bring significant improvements in understanding of disease mechanisms and disease management. A multi-disciplinary NIMR with sufficient critical mass of biomedical science coupled with investment in infrastructure would be well positioned to tackle the biomedical challenges that we are faced with today.


Responses to consultation questions

  5.  The remit of the NIMR should be to conduct basic science into understanding fundamental biological processes and disease mechanisms.

  6.  A single site that has strong links with universities would be optimal to perform this remit. We do not believe that such a site should necessarily be located in London. There appears to be a disproportionate emphasis on the "golden triangle" whilst other excellent sites are ignored. The location of a national site should take into account value for money and factors such as cost of living, transport links, price of housing, outlay for new building and refurbishment as well as the feasibility of recruitment of outstanding scientific staff. We know that the MRC has determined that the NIMR should remain in London but feel that is a serious and costly mistake based on false premises. The centre could be placed in Newcastle, Manchester or Birmingham at a much lower cost and this would prove more attractive to younger scientists. These areas boast excellent universities and strong scientific national and international links. Furthermore, these regional sites would derive benefit from regional development agency and European funding to create to jobs and enhance regional economies. It is recognised that such a new site would require relocation of staff but we reject the idea that a majority of current science leaders at NIMR would resign rather than move North. The same could also be true of a move to University College (UCL) or King's College (KCL) in London. However, a relocation to a more Northerly regional site would be associated with a reduced cost of living for staff relocating from London, partly as a consequence of cheaper housing. The transfer of high calibre scientific staff would act as a magnet for new recruitment to the NIMR and associated activities in the particular region. There is much to commend serious consideration of such a move and a thorough cost- benefit analysis.

  7.  If the NIMR remains in London then a move to KCL or UCL would incur significant cost whilst to remain at Mill Hill and carry out appropriate refurbishment would not be without expense. It is difficult to put a precise figure on the cost of a move and associated activities. However, we question the costs of the proposed move and are concerned that not all of the key factors have been duly considered. The current costs seem to us to be a gross underestimate of what will be needed and we have concerns that the development of NIMR could then jeopardise the ability of MRC to provide adequate funding for response-mode grants. If the NIMR remains in London the Mill Hill site looks to us to be the most cost-effective but loses the opportunity for close integration with a leading University. Of the two London sites identified, KCL is preferred, as it has offered contributions of £30 million or more to the capital costs of the project.

  8.  The work of the NIMR should be aligned to a UK biomedical research strategy. There should be sufficient flexibility in the system to allow for change commensurate with scientific progress. The work should be complementary to that of the LMB and CSC and not duplicate effort but work in partnership to create and deliver patient benefit.

  9.  In order to ensure that scientists are able to conduct multi-disciplinary research and optimally achieve the remit set out above, research on one site alongside a university is preferred. This will enable the UK to build on its existing strength in biomedical research and the NIMR continue to be a world-class organisation. This in turn will attract top-class scientists to the UK, a key component in creating a self-sustaining science base. Furthermore, partnerships and collaboration both with academia and Industry will be critical to the achievement of the MRC vision.

  10.  The NIMR should be seen as a centre of excellence in the UK providing both world-class biomedical research and training of future scientists and leaders. There should be sufficient critical mass and infrastructure to support a world-class facility.

  11.  The current size of the NIMR is probably about right to engage in productive multi-disciplinary research. A reduction in the current number of staff (730) would cause a decline in critical mass or result in too narrow a portfolio of research with major opportunities being missed. To deliver excellence in research we suggest an ambitious target of approximately 100 further scientific staff would be required.

  12.  The Director of the NIMR should possess strong leadership capabilities, have vision, international reputation, a track record of biomedical research excellence and be an influential communicator. The Director should receive the remit from the MRC and have clear accountabilities whilst retaining discretion in terms of scientific direction. The Director should be appointed by the MRC Council and be supported by a scientific advisory board to help to determine the priorities of the NIMR in the short, medium and long term, and to assist with scientific review of the scientific programmes.

  13.  We recognise the importance of publications in key scientific journals as a success measurement. However, to enhance the capabilities of the MRC and NIMR we strongly suggest that the critical success factors should be broadened to include metrics based on interaction with industry to develop and commercialise clinically successful treatments based on a fundamental understanding of disease process. Such key measurements would do much to promote effective partnerships between industry and academia.

  14.  We hope that this brief response is helpful to you in determining the remit and the future of the NIMR. We would be pleased to discuss this important matter with you in greater detail than this consultation allows.

17 November 2004

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