Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Neil Brockendorff, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre

  I am a research team leader at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre based on the Hammersmith Hospital site. I am writing to you with my own personal views in relation to the handling of the review into the future of NIMR. I have expressed these views in response to the original call for comments following publication of the recommendations of the MRC forward planning committee in 2003 (attached). I have also expressed my views in a telephone interview carried out by consultants appointed by the MRC on behalf of the NIMR task force. I hope the committee will be able to access notes taken during this interview. To summarise, whilst I understand the need to periodically review and freshen up established research institutions, I feel that the MRC have seriously mishandled this situation. The initial announcement that NIMR would be downsized and moved to Cambridge was made without proper consultation with staff or the wider scientific community. At best this appears to represent a serious failure in communication between the MRC and the scientific community that it serves. At worst one might suspect this was a calculated and deliberate attempt to undermine and fragment NIMR. As a member of a much younger MRC institute I have looked to NIMR, along with LMB, the Cancer Research UK laboratories in London, and the Welcome-CRUK institute in Cambridge, as successes worthy of emulation. These institutions have over an extended period of time established an international reputation as centres of excellence. The name and reputation of an institute is an asset that is difficult to price and my overall view in the case of NIMR is that the MRC have been careless in how they have handled this asset.

  1.  If the MRC had chosen to work closely with NIMR scientists at the outset, the polarisation that has occurred could have been avoided. Under those circumstances an argument to relocate NIMR to a London/Cambridge University/Medical School may have been won. However it now seems that any decision to move the NIMR would be seen by the staff and the community at large as a battle lost. Given the spirit in which this process has progressed to date, one can't help suspecting ulterior motives behind such plans. For example one might imagine that approval of a move to one of the London sites might be followed by progressive reductions in the ambitions for the relocated institute during the interregnum, or death by a thousand cuts. At this stage I would be very concerned that further destabilisation of NIMR will trigger an exodus. One could envisage a situation where only those who couldn't readily find an alternative home, the less able, would be left in a new "slimmer" institute. I would suggest that no plan for NIMR should be approved without the clear approval of the majority of NIMR staff. Only that way can the morale and hence the identity of the institute be preserved.

  2.  It is often said that the UK has not done as well as we should in turning great science into health and wealth for the nation. This is a complex problem which needs to be tackled from many different angles. Undermining innovative basic science however is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs! The notion that one can anticipate where the next important breakthrough may come from is in my view not supported by the facts. Most important scientific advances have involved some degree of serendipity. A simple formula, and the one that I think has served UK science best is to back excellent people and let them follow their instincts. In this regard I am concerned about the use of the terms "translational research" and "clinical research" in documents relating to plans for NIMR. These terms have not been foisted on the MRC-LMB, the most successful UK life sciences institution in terms of Nobel prizes. Here scientists have been free to pursue what they perceive as fundamentally important questions and trusted to get on with it. The benefit to the nation in terms of inventions, patents, wealth creation and employment creation has been enormous and represents extremely good value for the taxpayer. Translational research by definition is probably best carried out by companies. Clinical research also has its own special settings and environments. Both will be impoverished if innovative basic science in the UK is undermined. Although the MRCs questionnaire about NIMR did not include a research portfolio option of "only innovative basic science" this is what I would have chosen.

  3.  In my view the best solution to the current situation is to delay making a decision about relocating NIMR until a new Director has been identified. The MRC should find an individual with an exceptional track record in scientific research, and most importantly an individual who could gain the support and trust of NIMR staff. This I think could go a long way towards reversing the negative effects of events to date, sending a clear signal of support for NIMR to the scientific community. This in turn should open the door for an inclusive appraisal of options, including possible relocation.

22 November 2004

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