Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum by Dr Jamshed R Tata, National Institute for Medical Research


  The central premise that embedding NIMR in a clinical centre in central London would somehow enhance its research capability and cost effectiveness is flawed. This is borne out by examples of the impressive clinical applications, mentioned below, of the research carried out by this institute at its present Mill Hill location, and which is further supported by applications of similar research carried out at other biomedical research institutions not co-located with clinical centres. Good science, whether or not it is undertaken at clinical research centres, has always led to useful medical applications. Finally the financial, staffing and management consequences of moving a major institution to the centre of a large metropolis goes against much of the current thinking about moving to city centres.

1.  The central premise is flawed

  The central premise that co-locating the NIMR with a major clinical institution in the heart of London would enhance its research capability, and hence its clinical value, is unfounded. This is clearly borne out by the Institute's contributions since it has been established at its Mill Hill site. I cite here just a few examples in support of this issue:

    (a)  Sir Christopher Andrewes (himself a clinician and a past Deputy Director of NIMR) has said that, had he accepted the offer of establishing a department at a central London clinical centre before deciding to join the NIMR, he might not have discovered the influenza virus at NIMR, work which later led to the development of flu vaccine and the discovery of interferon in his laboratory.

    (b)  The isolation and determination of the structure of penicillin by Sir Ernest Chain at the NIMR during the Second World War, accompanied by collaboration with clinical colleagues.

    (c)  The work of Sir Henry Dale (a past Director of NIMR) and Prof Willy Feldberg's work on neurotransmitters has had a most profound impact on the discovery and use of drugs in psychiatric medicine.

    (d)  Prof Rodney Porter's elucidation of the structure of antibody at the NIMR, work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize and before he moved to a clinical/academic centre, opened up a very fruitful branch of immunology.

  One can cite several examples of equally important contributions coming from independent biomedical research institutions, collaborating with, but not co-located with, hospital-medical school complexes:

    (a)  Sir Peter Medawar's work on tissue transplantation, first at Universities of Oxford and London and then continued at NIMR (as Director) was later taken up in many clinical centres throughout the world.

    (b)  Robert Edwards' (an ex-NIMR scientist) work on in vitro fertilisation, in partnership with Patrick Steptoe at a Manchester hospital, carried out at a university science department led to the birth of Louise Brown, the first "test-tube" baby.

    (c)  The development of monoclonal antibodies by Cesar Milstein's group at the MRC's own Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge has had an immense impact on biotechnology and clinical practice.

    (d)  DNA fingerprinting, invented by Sir Alec Jeffreys in a science department at Leicester University is another example.

    (e)  The technology of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging, which has revolutionised diagnostic medicine and surgery, was initiated in a non-clinical laboratory at the University of Nottingham and an industrial R&D centre in the USA.

    (f)  The importance of Barbara McClintock's studies on inheritance in maize at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the USA on human genetics.

    (g)  Finally, one can cite the countless important clinical applications of research carried out at such institutions in the USA as Massachussetts and California Institutes of Technology (MIT and Caltech) and The Rockefeller University, which are not embedded in clinical centres.

2.  Good basic science produces valuable applications

  The point in mentioning the above examples is simply that good fundamental science, wherever it is practised, always leads to important applications. This is not to say that clinical research at hospital/medical schools is unlikely to lead to useful applications. But an inescapable conclusion that can be drawn from biomedical research undertaken worldwide is that there is an inherent advantage in conserving and nurturing independent and detached research centres, encouraged to set up collaborations with clinical centres.


  The disruption caused by the proposed move seems to have been deliberately minimised or ignored. It will be extensive and is bound to have serious consequences in breaking up ongoing collaborative projects within the NIMR and with external groups. It is not difficult to predict that co-location to a central London site, with all its problems, inherent in any metropolitan centre, will cause the loss of staff (especially the promising, younger members) and create difficulties in attracting their replacements. Finally, there is no way to estimate the financial burden of undertaking this proposal. Past experience with all public financing schemes tells us that, whatever the reassurances to the contrary, the final cost will be far in excess of what is initially suggested. This can only lead to the abandonment of new ventures and seizing new opportunities, which far outweighs the benefits that have been suggested in the MRC's proposals for the future of NIMR.

22 November 2004

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