Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Dafydd Walters, St George's Hospital Medical School

  1.  This letter is written to express a personal point of view in response to the call for evidence and comments on this issue.

  2.  The message I would very much like the Committee to take from my letter is that I and many of my colleagues have noted a growing divergence between the two most important groups for the advancement of medical science in the UK ie the scientists and the clinicians. I believe it is vitally important that these two groups are encouraged to interact at all levels and that this is best done by their co-localisation. The creation of a site where this can occur, just by its existence, would attract individuals who would want to work in such an atmosphere.

  3.  I have spent most of my career, of over 30 years, at the interface between basic scientific research and its application to the practice of medicine. I continue to perform basic physiological research in the laboratory, but I am also a practising clinician in Paediatrics and I have undertaken clinical research in my subject. In addition, I believe I have an overview of both clinical practice and research in the country through my positions in the past few years as Secretary of the Association of Clinical Professors of Paediatrics for (1998-2003) and as Deputy Chairman and then Chairman of the Executive of the Physiological Society (2001-04).

  4.  My colleagues and I have noted with regret over the past two decades a slow but steady separation between scientists and clinicians. This change is understandable given both the increasing emphasis in the scientific university community on short term productivity which has led to much more focus on immediate results and also the major changes in postgraduate medical education as a result of government directives which have shortened the post-graduate training program. The European Working Time directive has resulted in further pressures on junior clinicians which have inhibited exposure to research. In short, scientists have less reason to have interaction with clinicians and clinicians in training certainly have less opportunity and motivation to become involved in scientific research and this formative experience is difficult to regain at a later date. This is sad, for Britain possess a strong reputation for clinical science. The crisis in the training of clinical scientists is well known and has been a major pre-occupation of all the Royal Colleges and of the Academy of Medical Sciences for most of the past decade.

  5.  I understand that the mission to be given to the National Institute of Medical Research for the next generation is to have an emphasis on translational research which in my understanding means the application of basic scientific discoveries to health care. Given that it is increasingly difficult for the same person to be involved at the cutting edge of both sides of this endeavour, it strikes me that it is vital that individuals on each side of this divide should be encouraged to interact. Obviously this aim would be served best by co-localisation of scientists and clinicians.

  6.  Of course, co-localisation does not in itself guarantee success. However, I have been fortunate over the past decade to work at St George's Hospital and its Medical School which on its new site in Tooting in the late 1970s was designed deliberately to intermix scientists and clinicians. My own department is firmly ensconced within the clinical area and carries out basic and clinical research work. I have seen at first hand the benefits of this geographical proximity.

  7.  I have no personal or vested interest in any of the three sites that are to be considered for the NIMR and having been at St George's Hospital Medical School for over 10 years I feel I can give an unbiased view. (Perhaps for complete transparency I should state that I spent many years working at UCL and teach regularly at King's College London.)

22 November 2004

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