Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Elizabeth Simpson, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre

  I am writing in a private capacity to inform the committee of my opinions, which are not necessarily the same as the three organisations with whom I have close links, the Medical Research Council, the cancer charity Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and Imperial College, London. However, my experience as a scientist working within each organisation informs my views.

  I have recently retired as deputy Director of the Clinical Sciences Centre, Imperial College, Hammersmith, where I was also the leader of a research group working in the field of transplantation biology,with strong links with academic and clinical colleagues in the adjacent University. I am now an Emeritus Professor of the University, Imperial College, in which the Clinical Sciences Centre is located, and thus aware of the similarities and differences between research environments within Institutes and Universities. I am also a member of the Scientific Executive Board of CRUK, and of their Programme committee, as well as chairing their Project Grants Committee. This gives me insight into both direct (ie institute) and indirect (ie university) funding of biological research related to cancer. This ranges from very basic science studies to clinical applications.

  My view of the current situation of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) is that neither due process or a properly considered rationale for the current proposals have been followed.

  The original review of the Institute was sprung on them with no prior indication, even to the Director, that a radically new and different set of proposals were under consideration. This Institute review had followed a round of very successful quinquennial reviews of different research groups within the Institute, from which it was not apparent that the quality of the work being undertaken, or its relevance to improving understanding of biological processes, was in question. However, following the strategic review of the Institute, by a panel which represented a broad span of scientists, including those with a clinical background, drawn from the UK and abroad, a highly controversial report, with which not all members of the review party agreed, proposed closing the Institute and moving the scientists to Cambridge, to take advantage of proximity to clinical medicine at Addenbrooks and to related University activities.

  This first proposal met with such an outcry from the NIMR scientists, few of whom could or wished to re-locate to another city, and almost all of whom immediately realised that Cambridge could not meet their requirements for experimental animals (mostly mice). This second objection was especially powerful in view of their heavy dependence on mouse models to explore basic physiological processes as well as generating relevant models for the study of human disease. There was a strong feeling amongst the NIMR scientists and their colleagues elsewhere that the drive to close the Institute came from another, unstated agenda, and was being driven by interests which would brook no interference.

  There has, of course, for many years, been a tension between the funding by the MRC and other bodies, of research within Institutes and to groups in Universities, the later sometimes showing jealousy of the research environments achieved in Institutes, and wanting a bigger slice of the cake. However, my experience as chairman and a member of various grant giving bodies over the last 20 years—the MRC, the BBSRC, the Wellcome Trust and CRUK, brings me to the view that a balance must be maintained between the two, and that failure to support the infrastructure for research in Universities (as happened in the 1980s and 1990s) should not be made an excuse for asset stripping Research Institutes. Indeed, the high value placed on Institutes for biomedical research is clear from the setting up or revitalising of several new ones, often jointly, eg the Wellcome/CRC Institute in Cambridge, the Beatson (CRUK) in Glasgow, and now the new CRUK Cancer Institute in Cambridge, currently under construction, the Director just appointed.

  Given the very real misgivings over the suggested move to Cambridge, a review committee of experts was then appointed to re-visit a new set of recommendations. These now emerged, driven apparently from MRC head office, as a choice between:

    (1)  moving the whole Institute to a central London site adjacent to a hospital,

    (2)  moving its component parts to be adjacent to different London hospitals (the "virtual institute" option), or,

    (3)  to leave it where it was.

  This third apparent option was possibly included to placate widely held opinion that the Institute should remain at Mill Hill, in buildings which could be refurbished in due course—they are not currently in a bad state of repair, and the animal house facilities are superb—probably the best in the country, after the spending of millions on them recently. These options were put on a website and a wide constituency of scientists were canvassed to complete a questionnaire that was by no means open-ended, and in fact, were based on a set of assumptions which many wished to challenge. Your committee will have been told how many questionnaires were completed. The majority were in favour of the third option. The committee convened to re-visit the recommendations needed to include the results of the questionnaire, but also other submissions, including those from the scientists at the Institute. At the conclusion of the committee's work, option 1 was recommended, but again, there were dissenting voices on the expert committee.

  There is a strong feeling amongst scientists in the Institute as well as many of us outside, that the voices of those wishing to enter into a rational dialogue about the future of the Institute were not listened to. The subtext driving the recommendations was never made explicit, nor was the notion that research pertinent to advances in medicine can only be done adjacent to hospitals allowed to be questioned. I believe that the resource offered by Institutes is a precious one—it can create an intellectually challenging, multidisciplinary environment and provide the tools to explore long-term questions of biological importance. Really novel discoveries are most often made serendipidously, and any research strategy needs to take account of that. There certainly needs to be connection between universities and research institutes, but such connections are evidently in place at NIMR, and could be expanded. It does no service to the Universities, or to the advance of medical research, to dismantle fully functional institutes. The rebuilding of NIMR in central London—UCL and Kings are currently bidding for this prize—will cost huge sums of money—matching the current NIMR mouse accommodation alone would cost between 20 and 30 million pounds. During the process some of the best scientists currently at Mill Hill may become disheartened and leave—the best are likely to be lured away elsewhere. Not only will the MRC thereby lose a whole generation of biomedical scientists, but also the careers of the young trainees —PhD students, post-docs, fellows, currently in their labs—will be adversely affected.

  I recommend that your committee listen very hard to the voices of the scientists involved, and enter into a rational dialogue about how best to safeguard the long-term interests of biomedical research in this country. I doubt that this will be achieved by closing institutes.

22 November 2004

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