Memorandum from the National Institute
for Medical Research
1. What factors persuaded the MRC that a stronger
focus on translational research is required? What mechanisms were
explored for achieving this end?
There is publicity currently about a need to
increase the transfer of the benefits of discoveries in basic
science to patient care. Coupled with this is a realisation that
the amount of clinical research, in particular experimental medicine,
and the numbers of clinician scientists, including trainees, have
declined. This information may have influenced awards for clinical
research from Treasury that have been announced this year. Together,
all these factors may have persuaded MRC to focus more on translational
In relation to change in the balance of science
and translation at NIMR, there has never been a discussion between
MRC and NIMR on this point since the Institute Quinquennial Review
of 2000. At that time the current strategy for the Institute was
approved and complimented. The previous and current MRC CEOs,
their administrative staff, and certainly the Council, appear
to have been largely unaware of the extensive translation research
done by NIMR, particularly with London medical schools. I suspect,
therefore, that the suggestions for a stronger focus at NIMR were
opportunistic. It was certainly not part of the rationale given
to me for re-reviewing NIMR, which mainly involved erroneous views
on the quality of the building and subsequently the date of my
retirement. I do not know what extra mechanisms MRC recently explored
to increase translation research in general.
For NIMR the MRC objective appears to be to
increase translation, in an unspecified way, at the expense of
basic research. If realised this would damage the strength and
the coherence of NIMR's research programme, damage its already
extensive clinical collaborations, and decrease its value as a
site for training in biomedical science, not least for clinician-scientist
2. What impact is a heavier focus on translational
research expected to have on the balance of MRC funding for basic
and applied research?
Without extra funding a heavier focus on translation
research for MRC overall or for NIMR specifically, would presumably
decrease support for basic research. Such a consequence would
not be in the best interest of UK science. This is certainly a
good time for clinical science; it is also an exceptionally good
time for basic science upon which future clinical science and
training will depend.
3. What statistical and other evidence was
found from UK and beyond to indicate that colocated medical research
institutes realise more than a stand-alone institute in terms
of cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research collaborations,
and partnerships with other research funders?
Research collaborations flourish when the collaborators
have common and often complementary research interests and are
in general socially compatible. They do not depend on physical
proximity. No evidence is presented by the Task Force for a contrary
view other than selected quotations from a minority of opinions
obtained from MRC selected interviewees.
Within research Institutes of a suitable size,
specific recruitments to match areas of expertise and interests
can increase the likelihood of multi-disciplinary research collaborations.
Free from the responsibilities for the propagation of individual
disciplines which universities must carry, research institutes
can be more flexible in this regard.
As for forming partnerships with other research
funders to which they are allowed to apply, eg EU Frameworks,
research Institutes such as NIMR are very successful. And, in
the process, of course, they are encouraged to form many research
collaborations at a distance, throughout the EU. With UK charities
partnerships through grant support are also readily formed. For
research council funded institutes some charities, eg Wellcome
Trust, do not usually fund research projects for which a research
council employee is the principal investigator.
4. What evidence is there that the current
location of NIMR inhibits the ability of scientists there to conduct
translational research, and to collaborate with other research
institutes and hospitals?
I am unaware of any such evidence. On the contrary
there is ample evidence, that was made available to the Task Force,
to show that NIMR scientists have many fruitful and long-standing
collaborations with both basic scientists and clinicians, within
NIMR and in hospitals and universities throughout the UK and abroad.
NIMR clinical interactions are concentrated in London because
the range of clinical specialities that the range of NIMR basic
science requires is best provided in the capital. This concentration
does not extend to basic science collaborations which are widespread
and chosen because the best expertise is widespread. There is
every indication that these trends will continue in the future.
It is therefore unlikely that co-location with a single college
in central London will extend NIMR collaboration since the required
range of expertise for collaboration is not found on a single
site anywhere and is highly unlikely to be found on a single site
in the future. In fact we have serious concerns that proposals
for co-location and governance will inhibit the development of
future collaborations with other universities and hospitals.
5. How was membership of the Task Force determined?
What steps were taken to inform stakeholders of the progress of
MRC selected the two scientist members of Council
who had not been members of the MRC Financial Investment Strategy
Subcommittee, a clinician, who by his own admission to NIMR staff,
was at the time in favour of disbanding NIMR and redistributing
its funding, and a leader of a research council from abroad who
in the event was unable to attend any Task Force meetings.
NIMR nominated two members of NIMR staff, two
British scientists currently in the US, and the president of a
European research council. Due to other pressures the last person
withdrew after the second Task Force meeting, having been unable
NIMR senior staff were informed of Task Force
business by the two nominated members following each Task Force
meeting and subsequently they received the formal Task Force reports.
As a result they repeatedly became aware of considerable disagreements
between the formal reports and the views of Task Force members.
They also were informed of attempts by the MRC CEO to influence
and persuade Task Force members to agree with reports that were
not consistent with the spirit of the actual meetings. This information
has contributed considerably to a lack of staff confidence in
the Task Force process.
6. What weight the Task Force ascribed to
the consultation exercises which it used to formulate its conclusions?
Reference to the Task Force consultation in
the Task Force report is limited. Judging by the conclusions made
by the Task Force, however, the weight that it placed on the results
of the consultation was minimal. By its own admission it ignores
the consultation on the crucially important point of the importance
of physical proximity for collaborations when it states; "Notwithstanding
only modest support (13%) among consultees (including among clinician
scientists collaborating with Mill Hill), the Task Force is firmly
persuaded that physical proximity can play a very important role
in developing clinical links."
7. What assessment was made of the impact
on staff retention and recruitment of a move to (a) central London
and (b) outside London?
Some assessment appears to have been made in
the Task Force report of the negative impact on established NIMR
groups of a move outside London. It is less clear that the effects
of a move into central London were considered, even though evidence
was submitted that central London establishments have great difficulty
in recruiting in particular staff categories, relative to NIMR
at Mill Hill. What is most incomprehensible to NIMR in relation
to relocation, is the repeated unwillingness of MRC to take into
account the unanimous views of NIMR staff and the overwhelming
views of the consultees in relation to the outstanding qualities
of the Mill Hill site now and for the future, the unwillingness
of MRC to give any legitimate reason for contemplating relocation,
and the adamant stance of the MRC CEO against the Mill Hill site
as an option.
8. What assessment was made of the potential
initial and recurrent costs of a move to (a) central London and
(b) outside London?
It appears from the financial analysis section
of its report that the Task Force "has not been able to undertake
detailed analysis." (Section 6.1). Nevertheless MRC has decided
to reject Mill Hill as an option for NIMR in the future. The information
given in the Task Force report largely derives from the preliminary
figures presented by King's College and University College.
We are convinced that the NIMR at Mill Hill
option, the "Step Change Option" represents far better
value for money and is clearly more affordable in capital expenditure
terms. Our projections show the capital cost of relocating NIMR
to central London is likely to be over four times greater (£169
million) than the "Step Change Option" for NIMR at Mill
Hill (£40.1 million).
9. To what extent will a final decision be
based upon financial considerations?
NIMR has had mixed messages with regard to the
financial basis of any decision. We suspect that once a decision
is taken, financial considerations will become paramount, at least
for MRC financial input. A major concern is that a firm decision
to relocate will be taken before proper comparisons of cost and
overall affordability are made. If, subsequently, sufficient financial
support is not available for relocation, we fear that a Mill Hill
option, with the current complement of excellent scientists, may
have been irretrievably lost.
22 November 2004