Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Andrew Michael, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford

  1.  I am the Director of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM) in Oxford, Honorary Director of the MRC Human Immunology Unit, Chairman of the MRC Infections and Immunity Board and a member of MRC Council (since August 2004). I qualified in Medicine in 1968 and spent three years at NIMR between 1971 and 1974 working for my PhD. I have visited NIMR frequently since then and have collaborated with NIMR scientists. I was a member of the MRC site visit that reviewed Immunology in July 2004 and chaired the site visit that reviewed the Infections divisions in September 2004.

  2.  I have only been part of the review process for the future of NIMR since joining MRC Council three months ago. However I have followed events, have read the Task Force report and all associated papers, and have formed an opinion as to the process and the future of NIMR. This submission is made in my personal capacity.

  3.  The science in NIMR is of the highest calibre and the scientific leadership has been outstanding. It was the opinion of both recent review committees, that I was on, who examined each scientific programme and the opinions of more than fifty external referees, that the science in the Infections and Immunity Groups are both of the highest international class. Both groups were rated alpha-A, the highest category. These assessments recognise the very high quality of research carried out at NIMR, sustained over several decades. The MRC is rightly proud of the achievements of NIMR.

  4.  It is worth pointing out where research sits at NIMR vis-a"-vis the overall research portfolio of the MRC. The MRC quite rightly funds a spectrum of research from basic molecular and cell biology to phase III and IV clinical trials. In between is translational research is the process that leads from basic research to experimental medicine and then full scale clinical trials. The Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology, focuses on basic biomedical research and is the world leader with a clutch of Nobel prizes. NIMR has a broader remit, from basic molecular and cell biology to model systems and translational research. Examples of NIMR translational work are; the classification and molecular epidemiology of the influenza, malaria vaccine and drug discovery and TB model systems. I am personally indebted to their Immunology programme, which has underpinned much of the clinically orientated work in my own group.

  5.  I support Council's decision to review the two options of moving NIMR to either University College London or Kings College London. The Task Force has made a cogent scientific case for this after months of deliberation with a very large number of consultations and submissions, I see the clear advantages in such a move, if an equivalent facility can be set up in a University site and attached to a Medical School. The University site will open up possibilities for innovative and exciting collaborations in the basic sciences, particularly the physical sciences. The integrated Medical School connection will offer new opportunities to expand their translational research and develop programmes in experimental medicine. The move would make NIMR more accessible to clinical scientists who could develop full careers within its structure. The move to more clinical research has been highlighted as a direction in which the MRC must travel over the next 10-20 years. This must be true, although it cannot happen in a vacuum and will always be dependent on excellent basic research, which the MRC must continue to support.

  6.  I am fully signed up to MRC Council's decision, but I do have a concern that the cost of moving their outstanding biomedical research unit and NMR facility, as well as providing equivalent space in a new central London institute may prove too costly. Obviously every effort will be made to find the funding and to ensure the full transfer of facilities, the option of seriously cutting down the scale of the National Institute is not acceptable. We need a National Institute; the US National Institutes of Health campus has several Institutes of NIMR size, we are seeking to support only one.

  7.  The business plans for the UCL and KCL bids will soon be compared, by MRC Council, with the costs of keeping NIMR at Mill Hill. If the UCL and KCL bids fall below the standard required, then the Mill Hill option will be revisited. My personal view is that it might be possible for the Mill Hill option to deliver a substantial part of the new vision, if the full scale move to UCL or KCL proves impossible. There are other famous Institutes of medical research that are similarly distant from a medical school, for instance the Naval Yard Facility at Harvard, which is 20 minutes from the Massachusetts General Hospital, carries out outstanding translational research. The Infections Group at NIMR exemplifies that certain types of translational research can be carried out at Mill Hill. However, for the Mill Hill option to move forward, I would urge much closer interactions with one of the London Medical Schools, including space sharing on both sites and more external grant funding for research at NIMR.

  8.  The option, sometimes floated, of closing the Institute or splitting it up and relocating groups would be extremely damaging. The NIMR carries out biomedical research at the highest level and has an outstanding international reputation. NIMR, together with the Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology, flies the flag for UK medical science. Closure, which would certainly precipitate a US-led recruitment drive for the brightest talents, would send out a disastrous message with far reaching negative implications. MRC Council has already correctly rejected this option.

  9.  Whatever the outcome of Council's assessment of the bids from UCL and KCL and the comparison with the "enhanced Mill Hill" option, crucial factors will be the retention of the core scientific structure, including several key groups, in NIMR and the appointment of the new Director to succeed Sir John Skehel in 2006. His/her vision and ambition will be the most critical element in the future plan. There needs to be an end to the uncertainty so that a vigorous recruitment exercise can get under way in the very near future.

  10.  Finally, I believe that the MRC has acted correctly and fairly in setting up the Task Force and acting on its recommendations. The next phase will to look at the facilities that the two bids offer and the costs involved, comparing these with the costs of an enhanced Mill Hill option. MRC Council, since before I was a member, has continuously engaged with staff at Mill Hill and this continues. I have accompanied Professor Blakemore on a recent visit to meet staff. Their views have been considered carefully and Council will certainly continue this dialogue.


  I am a recent member of MRC Council, though this submission is in a personal capacity. I have considerable experience of NIMR and of biomedical research including translational research and experimental medicine. The proposal to move NIMR into a clinical setting in UCL or KCL potentially offers considerable advantages for the progress of clinical research in the next 20 years. However, should the bids not measure up to the vision the Mill Hill option must be revisited; I think there are ways this could deliver much of the vision of the Task Force. I believe that MRC Council and the Task Force have acted correctly and fairly in preparing, delivering and assessing their report. The process continues and the quality of the bids and budgetary implications are now high on the agenda. The MRC needs the time and space to continue to assess all the options so that a final decision can be made in the near future.

23 November 2004

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