Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor John Walker, Medical Research Council

  I am writing to you in relation to the forthcoming inquiry of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into the future of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR).

  Over the past 30 years I have worked as a research scientist for the Medical Research Council (MRC), from 1974-98 in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) and from 1998 to the present in the MRC's Dunn Human Nutrition Unit (DHNU). My research work and other professional activities have been scrutinised regularly at five-yearly intervals by visiting sub-committees of MRC Boards, as part of the MRC's Quinquennial Review process. Most recently, in December 2003, the activities of the DHNU, of which I am the Director, were examined by such a sub-committee.

  I have also been a member of Quinquennial Review Committees visiting other Units, and I have taken part twice in reviews of the activities of Divisions at the NIMR. In addition, I have participated in similar reviews of research institutes overseas on behalf of their national bodies, notably in Sweden, Finland, Germany and Switzerland.

  From these experiences, I have no hesitation in saying that the MRC's review processes are thorough, probing and rigorous. They also strive to be fair to those being reviewed by giving ample opportunity to scientists to present their work, both in the written submitted Report and in verbal presentations to the sub-committee, and for them to comment at each stage of the process.

  Sometimes, the scientific reviews are laudatory (happily my personal experiences are so characterised). However, sometimes they can be critical, but usually in a constructive way. Occasionally, as in the case of the Quinquennial Report of the Dunn immediately preceding my appointment as Director, the outcome of the review is sufficiently critical that radical redirection of the research effort is required, and wide ranging and strategic decisions have to be made about the future of the Unit. My experience was that the MRC acted decisively and fairly, and with clarity of purpose. I believe that the recent favourable outcome of the Quinquennial Review of the DHNU shows that that the restructuring and redirection that followed my appointment as Director have been beneficial and productive, opening up, as they have, new avenues of research that have been judged to be at the highest level.

  The review process itself is controlled by the Chair of the visiting sub-committee who is usually the Chair of the appropriate MRC Board. The Boards scrutinise and debate the recommendations of the review sub-committees and make their recommendations based on the sub-committee's report about Institutes and Units to the MRC Council. The Chair has an important role to play in ensuring the objectivity and fairness of the review both with the visiting review sub-committee and at Board meetings. The Chairs are selected invariably (in my experience) from the "extramural" University sector, and the memberships of Boards are dominated by members from the same sector. Institutes and Units are represented on the Boards, and an independent Unit Director usually participates in the Board's discussions about a sub-committee report. However, members of Boards from the so-called "intramural" sector are in a small minority.

  In the current prevailing climate of debate within the MRC where the roles of Institutes and Units and of the need for them to exist at all are being questioned by the Council, and where many medical scientists in the University sector appear to believe that they have been poorly supported by the MRC in recent years, whilst at the same believing that the MRC's Institutes and Units have been favoured by receiving strong support, it is extremely important that the Chairs of Boards act with scrupulous impartiality both in reviews of Institutes and Units and in the decision making processes that may influence their futures. It is possible that since the Chairs of the MRC's boards are drawn from the "extramural" sector, they too have a conflict of interest.

  The Board Chairs are also ex officio members of the MRC Council, whereas with the exception of honorary Directors of Institutes and Units, who are a small minority, Institute and Unit Directors are not allowed to be Council members, because they are perceived as having a conflict of interest. The Council makes the final decisions about Institutes and Units that are being reviewed.

  Thus, the views and interests of the intramural sector of MRC Institutes and Units are poorly represented at important levels of the decision making process. In contrast, the extramural sector, which has vested interests in the outcomes of reviews and Units because extramural scientists are competing for the MRC's finances with Institutes and Units, is well represented and holds powerful and influential positions. Clearly, it is desirable to correct this imbalance by ensuring that both intramural and extramural interests are both properly represented, and that important decisions about Institutes and Units are arrived at impartially. Otherwise, the best decisions about the future of publicly funded Medical Research in the United Kingdom are unlikely to be made.

  In the current climate in the MRC, there is a real danger that unless appropriate decisions are made, this country could lose its position of pre-eminence in biomedical research surpassed only by the United States. The MRC Institutes and Units have played a conspicuous even dominant role in gaining and maintaining that position. Once this pre-eminence is lost, it will be extremely difficult and probably impossible to regain.

  As I have no personal knowledge, I cannot comment on the recent controversies surrounding the future of the NIMR. However, I suspect that some of the points that I have made above about the MRC's processes for review of its Institutes and Units may apply to that specific issue.

22 November 2004

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