Memorandum from Professor Guy Dodson,
University of York
My name is Guy Dodson, I am a retired professor
of chemistry at the University of York who for 11 years held a
joint appointment at the NIMR as Head of the Division of Protein
Structure. My research career has been devoted entirely to the
x-ray analysis of proteins, now a key discipline in biology. I
have watched the field grow explosively to take a central role
in the medically related sciences.
I recognize that the MRC has a very difficult
job meeting the always increasing pressures from the research
community. In these circumstances transparency and informed consultation
It is with these perspectives in mind that I
write to the committee about the future of the NIMR.
The NIMR is a unique centre of biomedical research
poised to play a major role in shaping the future of the biological
and medical sciences. Its size, 750 staff all under one roof,
gives it a broad combination of molecular, biological and biomedical
science and a superbly maintained and resourced infrastructure.
The key to the NIMR's success is its coherent combination of disciplines
that brings the molecular sciences together in a coherent context
and gives biomedical relevance to structure and mechanism. The
biomedical sciences equally benefit from the fundamental insights
into function that come from knowledge of structure and mechanism.
Finally as an indicator of the NIMR's quality I draw attention
to the NIMR's consistent recruitment and retention of outstanding
You will know that there has been a most robust
response by the NIMR staff to some aspects of the MRC's proposals
about its future. The institute as you can imagine has been galvanized
by the experiences of the last two years. Indeed the review processes
have served to strengthen further the staff's already strong appreciation
of the exceptional nature of the research environment here, of
which the MRC can be proud. The NIMR staff, and I expect the MRC,
are all pleased that the Task Force has confirmed the NIMR's scientific
standing and its important present contributions to the MRC, and
its future potential. The NIMR therefore matters and its future
is an important issue.
There are six major issues need considering
and that I should like to highlight these for the committee's
1. Should the Mill Hill site be retained
as an option for the future of NIMR?
2. The basis for the review of the NIMR.
3. The mechanism of comparison of the two
London sites and Mill Hill.
4. The case for translational research (at
5. The practicalities of moving the NIMR.
6. Why has this happened?
These are followed by some background and specific
issues that are relevant to the NIMR's present situation and its
1. Should the Mill Hill site be retained as
an option for the future of NIMR?
I give this issue specific attention because
it is impossible to understand its basis, it has raised serious
anxieties in the staff and it illustrates some of the problems
with the management of the Task Force process. In saying this
I do not include the Task Force itself in any critical comment,
their job has just been made very much more difficult by mismanagement
in the processes.
The way the decision emerged has caused dismay
at the NIMR.
The Task Force announced its preliminary conclusions
in June, recommending NIMR be relocated to one of two central
London sites. That this meant the Mill Hill site was excluded
from consideration emerged only after later statements from the
CEO. The circumstances around this decision to exclude Mill Hill
are confused. The decision did not reflect the views or understanding
of the majority present and was certainly contrary to the impressions
of the NIMR Task Force representatives of the fifth meeting itself.
Most remarkable and most damaging of all, in a communication to
us prior to issuing their final report, the Task Force acknowledged
that the issue of Mill Hill as an alternative site was not discussed
at the meeting. Nonetheless the decision to exclude the Mill Hill
site from consideration was subsequently endorsed by Council in
I can see no logic in ruling out the Mill Hill
option at this stage. As I understand it the OGC Gateway process
will require extensive comparisons of options. Do the MRC imagine
they can avoid this rigorous exercise?
2. The basis for the review of the NIMR
The puzzle about this review of the NIMR is simply
there is no convincing evidence that a move to central London
is justified in terms of inadequacies in the NIMR at Mill Hill,
or in terms of benefit from co-location with a hospital. A further
puzzle is the evident determination to remove the NIMR from Mill
Hill in the face of its many strategic and practical advantages.
It has always seemed likely to me that the decision
to review NIMR's future was driven by financial and organisational
considerations. These have not been used as primary reasons by
the MRC in its statements or discussions with the NIMR, but increased
financial flexibility was used as a driver in the FIS. In the
FIS proposal the financial pressure was satisfied by halving the
size of the NIMRat the expense of the NIMR's multidisciplinary
science. However the Task Force is explicit about retaining an
NIMR of approximately the same size. Thus the present plan to
move NIMR to central London presents an enormous financial problem
that simply has not been addressed with any useful clarity.
3. The mechanism for comparing the two London
sites and Mill Hill
Two central London bids and the Mill Hill enhanced
baseline case have to be assembled and brought together for an
appropriate comparison, and then a most consequential decision
on the preference has to be made. On the present MRC timescale
this has to be done in a matter of weeks The bids are complex
and one presumes detailed, their analysis and comparison will
be a difficult exercise. Research in a multidisciplinary institute,
with its interdisciplinary tradition, is a complex exercise and
easily damaged. It will be essential to have insight into the
research and staffing practicalities and these are likely to be
decisivethe devil after all is in the detail.
After the difficulties with the arbitrary approach
Council took in the FIS review, I am anxious that the Council
is briefed sufficiently to be informed of the NIMR research needs.
This is essential for a proper comparison. As far as we are aware
the NIMR is not to be involved in tendering advice and that there
is to be no independent input into the decision about the NIMR's
location from other scientists expert in institutes and biomedical
research, especially in London.
Haste has been a characteristic of the reviews
since they began. The evident haste at this juncture to reach
a decision is not in the best interests of an unusually complex
decision with a 50 year future; this rush is certainly not helping
the institute's uncertainties.
4. The case for translational research at
The Task Force recommended an expansion of translational
research at NIMR as part of its "new vision". There
were two reasons for this.
First there is a perceived need for more translational
research. It was considered desirable that the £27-30 million
pa committed to the NIMR needed to include translational programmes
to fit the demands and potential of modern medicine. However the
report fails to recognise the extent and nature of research that
is translational and clinical at the NIMR, even though this information
was presented to the Task Force.
Secondly the proposal to expand translational
research was seen as a powerful reason to co-locate the NIMR with
a hospital. It is ironic that there is no evidence on basic and
clinically related research collaborations in other London biomedical
research institutions, on or off hospital sites, equivalent to
that provided for the NIMR. This is the kind of evidence the Task
Force needs before it can even begin to make decisions on translational
policies in central London, and it should be got.
5. The practicalities in moving the NIMR
A successful research organization is valuable
property and it should be cared for. Relocation on the scale required
for the NIMR is an enormous undertaking. The expense of moving
is one matter, but the dislocation associated with any move of
this complexity is a major factor that needs realistic assessment.
The particular practicalities of animal housing, high containment
facilities and advanced research equipment like NMR, are fearsome.
Obviously moves have to happen, and have happened, and the dislocation
in itself is not a reason not to move. But in this case there
really are major considerations, they seem not to have been considered
in detail at all.
6. Why has this happened?
The debate over the NIMR's future comes at a
time when the exciting potential for translation of biomedical
science is starting to be realized and involves an institution
that is equipped to play a critical role in this future. The matter
has involved the NIMR, and no doubt the MRC Head Office staff,
in two years of distraction, uncertainty and cost. It indicates
to me there really is something wrong with the system.
The origins of the decision to review
the NIMR need to be identified, together with the extent and nature
of the advice the MRC sought and was given. Perhaps this will
explain why review of the NIMR is being pursued with such relentless
To what extent did the MRC and Council
consult its own expert committees for advice on strategy.
The Council contains no representation
from Institutes, only from Universities and from the commercial
and administrative fields. This has created an imbalance of experience
that prevents Council getting the full range of knowledge and
perspective that it needs to serve the whole MRC community properly.
In particular the matter of the NIMR's future presented the Council
with obvious problems. These include the issues of direct and
indirect funding (in which Universities have an interest), the
role of institutes generally in biology and biomedicine and the
pattern of different research traditions/practices/mechanisms
needed in the current rapidly changing fields of biological and
The corporatisation of the Medical
Research Council has created a proactive culture in which the
CEO has a double responsibilityfor scientific and medically
related research, and for management. Possibly as a result of
this culture an important element of disinterested input from
the Chair has been lost. The reduced dialogue that I have noticed
over the last years between the Head Office and its community
is also a serious loss. It has been made worse by the pressures
on MRC Head Office staff who are seriously overstretched. Another
consequence of these changes has been a very considerable increase
in the work load and responsibilities of Council members. I suspect
that these factors are making it more and more difficult for the
MRC and Council always to work effectively.
The MRC is embarking on a review
of its policy of unit assessment. It seems likely to me that this
development is driven by a fundamental rethink on direct and indirect
funding, an issue that needs clarification and that I consider
is possibly connected to the basis for the NIMR reviews.
Finally perhaps the most important
lesson for the MRC must have informed, open and genuine contacts
with its community through which it can gain confidence in its
decisions. It needs to have a culture in which consultation about
scientific, organisational and investment strategy with its experienced
scientists occurs naturally, reasonably often and at an early
On a more formal level there are existing mechanisms
such as the quinquennial visits that provide a platform for longer
term thinking without destabilizing the communities involved.
In my view it is imperative that future approaches to strategic
reviews avoid destabilization, are transparent, and have both
the advice and the confidence of the community.
To begin I should say that I consider it is
essential that the MRC is informed on the progress and potentials
in its research portfolio and I understand and support the principle
of the MRC reviewing its policies and research commitments when
The present process began, at least for the
NIMR, in September 2002 when the MRC's Chairman and CEO George
Radda informed the Director that there was need for a review of
the Institute on the grounds that the building needed to be replaced
and that this required the preparation of a scientific case based
on a review. This approach departed from the traditional MRC quinquennial
institute review strategy that has been the foundation for managing
future research and funding in institutes and units in the MRC.
However this first initiative collapsed immediately when it was
demonstrated that the building was completely sound and had 20-30
more years of working life.
The Forward Investment Strategy (FIS) followed
within a few weeks. In this review the future scientific and financial
strategies were to be considered initially for three MRC institutes
and then the four institutes. The haste with which this review
was put in place and the fact it was a reconstruction of that
planned for the NIMR alone, considerably undermined the credibility
of the exercise. The serious inadequacies of the FIS review that
followed are well documented. Its proposal to move the NIMR to
Cambridge and to reduce it in size by half was overwhelmingly
rejected by the community.
After the collapse of the FIS a Task Force was
quickly set up to review the NIMR and to make recommendations
on its future. The Task force had both representation from the
NIMR and from the MRC Council and members nominated by the NIMR
and MRC. Management consultants were appointed to provide the
paper work, organization of meetings and the consultation exercise,
seen as an important component, with the community/stakeholders.
There were five meetings of the Task Force whose conclusions have
The Task Force identified the central role that
institutes play in biomedical research. Its recommendations include:
i. the NIMR should stay in London, and be
of "approximately the current size"; the sites selected
were either to be at University College or Kings College and an
enhanced Mill Hill site was to be used as a bench mark;
ii. the NIMR should be relocated to a single
site adjacent to a hospital/university, provided that "suitable
arrangements for governance, funding and accommodation of the
institutes activities can be arranged.";
iii. the NIMR should establish and expand
in translational research.
The procedure for the preparation of the submission
by NIMR on the Mill Hill site and its comparison with the central
It is extraordinary to me that the MRC has been
completely uninvolved in advising or consulting the NIMR about
how we should shape our future in relation to the MRC's needs
from the FIS exercise on. Even at this late but critical stage
there has been no real consultation and certainly no dialogue
between the Institute in relation to the central London sites
or how we might best think out our plans for enhancement at Mill
Since the enhanced Mill Hill site is the base
line its quality and of character must be of direct interest to
the MRC who I imagine would be wanting to offer help and advice.
Nothing of this has happened. And one wonders why.
The MRC has been addressing the future of the
NIMR since at least mid-2002. No-one denies the MRC's responsibility
to manage its research. To do this effectively however the MRC
needs to have the confidence of its community and in its community.
These relations are only achieved by a combination of consistency,
consultation and competence. I consider that in approaching the
NIMR's future, the MRC has too often failed to achieve good management
practice. This is demonstrated by the procedures followed in the
FIS exercise and the management of the Task Force especially
since its final meeting.
Two specific issues arise in relation to the Task
One aspect of the Task Force's management by
the MRC that has given me much concern is the use of the consultants.
It seems to me to be an alarming development that the MRC does
not feel it can rely on its own competence to carry out such reviews.
The very limited knowledge that consultants have about MRC culture,
the practice of science and its clinical ramifications does not
serve MRC's need to guide development of its research and organizational
policies. Moreover I am afraid that the use of consultants as
`summarisers and interpreters' contributed to the lack of direct
productive contact between the MRC and NIMR. In this context also
I note that consultants have also been employed to help with current
MRC review on unit assessment.
2. Minutes of Task Force meetings
On the matter of professional practice I consider
that it was a disaster for NIMR:MRC relations that no minutes
of the Task Force meetings were taken and agreed. This must have
contributed to the disputes over what the meetings were thought
to have agreed and the subsequent reports produced by the consultants.
I also understand that the consultant's preparation of background
material was on occasion inadequate or inaccurate, for example
on such matters as bibliometric analysis. The consequences of
this failure to minute the Task Force discussions properly was
particularly serious after the fifth and final meeting.
23 November 2004