Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Jim Smith, Cambridge University

  1.  The success of the National Institute for Medical Research is due in large part to the interdisciplinary nature of the work being carried out. Few Universities or other Institutions within the UK can match the range of research being carried out at Mill Hill, and it is important that this interdisciplinary culture is maintained and encouraged. The financial and intellectual arguments for moving NIMR to central London are weak and unconvincing, and the option of remaining in Mill Hill should be included in further discussions. Finally, it is important that the future of NIMR is decided soon. I, and presumably others, became aware of the idea to move the Institute to Cambridge in 2000, and this long period of uncertainty must have been very damaging to Mill Hill.

  2.  I write as a former member of NIMR. I joined the Institute in 1984 as a tenure-track scientist, was awarded tenure in 1988, and became Head of the Laboratory of Developmental Biology in 1991. I then became Head of the Genes and Cellular Controls Group in 1996. I left in 2000 to become Chairman of the Wellcome/CRC Institute (now the Wellcome Trust/CR-UK Gurdon Institute) and the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Developmental Biology at Cambridge University.

  3.  As a former member of the Institute I know that NIMR provides a superb environment to become a successful and productive scientist. When I told Martin Raff (University College, London), over 20 years ago, that I was going to NIMR, he said "if you can't succeed there, you won't succeed anywhere". He was right.

  4.  The success of the Institute depends in part on the facts that the scientists have a superb research infrastructure, they have very little administrative work, they do not have to write grants, and they are not obliged to teach. More important, however, are:

    (i)  the depth and breadth of the research that is carried out at NIMR;

    (ii)  the fact that there are critical masses of scientists working on different yet complementary problems; and

    (iii)  the opportunities to collaborate. During my time at the Institute I collaborated and published with virtually all the developmental biology groups and had many productive interactions with members of the other "supergroups" (as they were called in my time).

  5.  Since my departure from the Institute, with more genomic sequences becoming available as well as the advent of "Systems Biology", the importance of these interdisciplinary collaborations has increased enormously. In my subject of developmental biology, I need increasing access to expertise in imaging, cell biology, microarray technology, bioinformatics, proteomics, novel fluorescent molecules, physiology and mathematical biology, to name just a few areas. These techniques are all available at NIMR, but most University researchers, even those in the best Universities, do not have ready access to them, and certainly not on a daily basis, as is possible at Mill Hill.

  6.  Interdisciplinary interactions of this sort frequently lead to the establishment of new collaborative projects, and another strength of NIMR is that, with the Director's support, such projects can be initiated immediately, rather then having to write a grant and wait for the outcome of the application.

  7.  I believe these arguments strongly favour keeping NIMR as a single multidisciplinary entity. To break it up, presumably into units whose remits would be those of the existing four research areas of Mill Hill, would be to take a huge retrograde step that runs counter to all the prevailing trends of biological research. These trends are illustrated by the establishment of systems biology institutes around the world, the expansion of the Sanger Institute, the founding of the Janelia Farm research community by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the requirement of the HFSP that their research grants are multidisciplinary in nature. To deny NIMR scientists the opportunity to participate in this new and exciting style of biology would be very unfortunate indeed.

  8.  I have heard, informally, some of the arguments against maintaining NIMR as it is. One is financial. I can't speak to this because I don't know what the numbers are, but I do know that it is difficult to put a price on successful science, and that successful science can, sometimes, generate enormous income. A second reason (and I hear this argument more often now that I have left Mill Hill) is that some people are concerned that NIMR scientists have too good a deal and that they reduce funds available to universities through MRC project and programme grants. In response to this I would note that the Wellcome Trust, the BBSRC, CR-UK, NIH, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and many other agencies also have both Institutes and response mode funding. The important thing is to get the balance right and to make sure that the Institutes are rigorously reviewed.

  9.  Any discussion of the future of NIMR should indeed review the balance between direct support and response mode funding and consider the whole of the MRC's portfolio, including other Institutes and Centres.

  10.  I can see no strong reason for moving the Institute to central London. First, the Institute has the necessary critical mass to function as an independent entity. Little would be gained on a day-to-day basis by moving to University College or King's College London, and NIMR in its present position is close enough to collaborate efficiently with scientists in both these colleges. Second, the move itself would be very expensive, and one advantage of staying in NW7 is that it is much easier for people (especially non-academic staff) to live locally. I know how important this is from my experience in Cambridge, where very few of our animal technicians, for example, or secretaries, can afford to live near the Institute. This makes recruitment and retention very difficult. I believe it is very important to keep open the idea that NIMR stays in Mill Hill.

  11.  Finally, I believe it is very important to make a decision about NIMR as quickly as possible. I was made aware of the possibility that NIMR might move to Cambridge in 2000, shortly before I left the Institute. It took over two years for the proposal to appear in the draft MRC Forward Investment Strategy document of April 2003, and 18 months later all that has happened is that Cambridge has been ruled out and University College and King's College have replaced it. NIMR has thus suffered a prolonged period of uncertainly, and this must have hindered recruitment and damaged morale enormously.

22 November 2004

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