Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


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 are crucial.

  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 scientists.

  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 attention.

  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 NIMR).

  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 future.


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 July.

  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 NIMR—at 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 decisive—the 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 NIMR

  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 determination.

    —  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 medical sciences.

    —  The corporatisation of the Medical Research Council has created a proactive culture in which the CEO has a double responsibility—for 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 stage.

  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 appropriate.

  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 been published.

  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 London sites.

  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 Hill.

  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 Force

1.  Consultants

  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

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