Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Donald Steiner, University of Chicago

  I write as a concerned American scientist to express my strong support for continuity in preserving the national research treasure that currently is located at Mill Hill. This is one of the premier research institutions of the world and one that is very widely admired for the excellence of its many outstanding research contributions in major current areas of great scientific interest. These include neuroscience, genetics and development, infection and immunity, and structural biology—all representative of key areas for progress in understanding basic life processes. The Mill Hill site has proven to have been wisely chosen for it has provided the advantages of adequate space for maintaining critical mass, has facilitated local, national and international interactions through its proximity to Heathrow Airport and to a wide variety of centers in both London and the U.K., while providing a serene environment with near-ideal living conditions for staff and visiting scientists. In my view, attempting to condense and/or move this facility to a potential new site within Central London raises a great number of concerns that threaten the continued excellence of the programs that have been painstakingly developed through many years of effort. Mill Hill is a first class institution; the jewel in the MRC crown—and as such is a symbol to the world of the value placed on basic biological research by the United Kingdom. Downsizing and relocation, in addition to being extremely costly financially, might well also send a confusing signal to scientists throughout the world in this regard. As to whether relocation to a more urban setting is more desirable from the point of view of "translational" issues, I would like to point out that translation is largely an intellectual process that transcends distances, ie, when breakthroughs of great clinical relevance occur, they are invariably rapidly taken up by alert physicians. As examples one can cite the development of protease inhibitory drugs for AIDS therapy. In the U.S. the Centers for Disease Control and the NIH are located near, but not closely-linked to hospitals or universities in major metropolitan areas. Indeed, there are many distinct disadvantages that argue against locating large national basic research resources in dense urban environments because of their dependence on the use of radioactive materials and often of mammalian animal models, not to mention the needs for reasonable and comfortable housing for the staff, freedom from threats of terrorism and other concerns. I am a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and can report that this premier research institution is currently planning a large centralized research facility for facilitating neuroscience and related endeavors, the so-called "Janelia Farm" Center, which will be located in a rural area of Northern Virginia near the Potomac river. It is being built quite near a major airport and about as close to Washington, DC and the NIH as Mill Hill is to London. Gerald Rubin, its recently appointed director, has strongly advocated such a rural location for many of the reasons cited above. I wish you well in your decision-making process, but would strongly advocate strengthening what you already have in Mill Hill and keeping it on its present exceptionally fine site.

22 November 2004

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