Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Steven Ley, National Institute for Medical Research

  1.  The Medical Research Council (MRC) decided at its meeting in October that the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) should not remain at Mill Hill but rather be relocated to a central London site, adjacent to either UCL or KCL. As scientists, we are of course in favour of any changes that improve our scientific environment, including enhancing opportunities for translational research. However, we have concerns about the rationale behind this decision, its huge cost implications and about the way in which the decision was reached by the MRC. We are also unconvinced that the developments envisioned by the MRC will ever materialise.


  2.  The Task Force stated that the proposed bid for a relocated NIMR would have to be more attractive than what could be achieved by NIMR at Mill Hill. However, from what we know about the bids from UCL (animal facilities one mile away from the Institute) and King's (Institute split into two buildings), we think it is very unlikely that either option will come close to matching our current facilities. In view of this, we are astonished that the MRC has excluded the possibility of NIMR remaining at Mill Hill. Furthermore, while the MRC have recently requested that NIMR submit plans for an "enhanced" Institute at Mill Hill to act as a baseline comparison for the UCL and KCL bids, they have still refused to consider the Mill Hill site as a full option. This decision defies logic and common sense.

  3.  In our view the Mill Hill site offers enormous advantages over the proposed central London sites. We have extensive research animal facilities (9,000 square metres; housing mice, rats, frogs and fish) which are unique in the UK in terms of their size and "state of the art" capabilities. These animal facilities form an essential part of our research infrastructure. Replicating this on a central London site would be very expensive and also difficult to achieve in view of the likely response from animal rights groups. The Mill Hill Institute also houses the MRC Biomedical NMR facility and is immediately adjacent to MRC Technology (MRC-T), the technology transfer arm of the MRC. However, we understand that these facilities would not be co-located with the renewed NIMR on either of the central London sites. This would damage our science and capacity for translational research.

  4.  We are concerned that embedding NIMR within UCL or KCL will diminish the scientific and managerial independence of the Institute. We believe that independence is essential if NIMR is to carry out fully its national role, as recommended by the Task Force. In strong support of this view, the vast majority (83%) of independent scientists and clinicians who responded to the Task Force consultation exercise recommended that NIMR should stay at Mill Hill.

  5.  The Mill Hill site covers 47 acres, of which NIMR currently occupies about 25%. This provides the possibility of considerable expansion in the future, which could be funded by the MRC and also by inward investment from other stakeholders. This flexibility would be lost upon relocation, since the space available for the new NIMR would, for cost reasons, necessarily be limited to the current size of NIMR at Mill Hill at best. We believe this is a poor strategic decision, since over the proposed 20-30 year time frame for the renewed NIMR, we envisage a large increase in demand for biomedical research. In particular, it is inevitable that animal models will become increasingly important for both basic and translational research. It is crucial that NIMR does not lose the possibility of expanding its animal facilities beyond its current level in the future.


  6.  The MRC's decision to move NIMR to central London was made without a systematic analysis of the scientific advantages, risks and costs of the two central London locations compared with the Mill Hill site. Indeed, the detailed business cases from UCL and KCL were requested by the MRC only after it had already decided to exclude the Mill Hill site as an option. We have received no convincing justification from the MRC of why a proper comparative cost/risk analysis was not carried out before making any decisions about the future of NIMR. This has completely undermined our confidence in the abilities and motives of MRC management.

  7.  The major rationale for relocation of NIMR to central London appears to be co-location with a research medical school in order to enhance clinical collaborations and translational research. However, the current NIMR already has extensive collaborations with clinical groups in London, in the rest of the UK and internationally, as demonstrated in submissions to the Task Force. Furthermore we believe that co-location of NIMR with a research hospital may reduce flexibility by restricting our ability to form collaborations outside of the host HEI. At present, we enjoy clinical collaborations with all of the major London research hospitals and their associated academic centres. It is important to note that a previous embedding of an MRC Institute with a hospital (the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park) was widely regarded as a failure and the MRC was eventually forced to close it. We therefore believe that the MRC proposal to relocate NIMR from Mill Hill is associated with considerable risk and uncertainty. Since a huge amount of money would be required to relocate NIMR from Mill Hill, we question whether this is prudent use of public funds.

  8.  The exclusion of Mill Hill as an option by the MRC has had a destabilising effect on the Institute. Many of us have been approached with alternative job possibilities both in the UK and abroad. Clearly, if the current uncertainty regarding the future of the Institute continues or if the MRC approves a substandard bid for NIMR, many of us will seriously consider leaving. This will result in the loss of important research programmes from the MRC and probably the UK. This cannot be a good outcome for British science and would be the direct result of MRC mismanagement of its review of NIMR during both the FIS and Task Force phases.


  9.  The decision to relocate NIMR to central London and to exclude the possibility of NIMR remaining at Mill Hill was taken by the MRC in light of recommendations from the Task Force. However it is clear from the reports of the Task Force and in subsequent emails (all released by the MRC) that the option of NIMR remaining at Mill Hill was not properly discussed at its fifth and final meeting. We consider this a clear failure of management of the Task Force by the MRC. The subsequent decision to exclude the Mill Hill option was reached by e-mail and telephone conversations and agreed by a 5-4 vote. The five member majority was achieved by the casting vote of the Chairman.

22 November 2004

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