Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


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 research.

  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 trainees.

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 its work?

  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 to attend.

  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

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