Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Sir Paul Nurse, former MRC Task Force member on the NIMR

  1.  The National Institute for Medical Research is an excellent biomedical research institute with a strong international reputation. It has prospered well under its current leadership and I would rank it amongst the top five or so such institutes in Europe at the present time. The UK and the MRC should be proud to have NIMR as part of its scientific research portfolio.

  2.  Although NIMR is prospering, its present site is not completely ideal, being located in outer London which is less than perfect for travel, and not being located near other biomedical research activities. Given it is the National Institute for Medical Research a central London location would be better, where connections to the rest of the UK and the world would be better. There would also be advantages if NIMR were closer to other major biomedical research facilities and research hospitals (eg Imperial, Kings, UCL). It is important that NIMR should collaborate throughout the UK and the rest of the world. However, research contacts can be easier to set up when activities are more closely located, and there are cultural differences in the way patient based and basic research are carried out, and greater exposure of NIMR scientists to clinical scientists working in research hospitals would be an advantage. A central London site near one of the bigger research universities would provide an ideal location for NIMR in the 21st century.

  3.  A move to central London should be combined with an increased focus of the institute providing national leadership and driving up standards of basic and clinical research throughout the country. This is an exciting vision for biomedical research in the UK. However, there are potential obstacles in realizing this vision briefly summarized in the next three paragraphs which are also important for understanding the present unease about the future of NIMR.

  4.  A suitable site in central London large enough to accommodate NIMR at its present size needs to be found, and the resources to purchase the site and build a new institute need to be made available, if necessary by additional support to the MRC. Given that this is an investment for the next 50-70 years, the capital costs will in reality be amortized over an extended period of time. Viewed this way the annual costs are more acceptable and should not distract from the future vision for NIMR.

  5.  Although located closely to other biomedical research facilities, the governance of NIMR should remain independent of any adjacent university. Interactions need to be close and whenever possible research costs shared, but the institute is a national facility and must maintain its independence if it is to fulfill this role effectively.

  6.  The size of NIMR in central London should be similar to the present institute at Mill Hill. It will be difficult for it to carry out its new national mission unless its present size is maintained, and so moves to reduce its size should be resisted.

  7.  The MRC has had financial problems in recent years which have led to extramural response mode research funding being reduced. In turn this has led to some, particularly in the university sector, arguing that MRC institute funding should be reduced to fund the short fall, and they may like to see MRC council reduce NIMR support to fund this deficit. This is quite wrong. Extramural response mode funding and the universities indeed need support, but this should not be at the expense of MRC institutes such as NIMR which play a special role in the UKs research portfolio. Institutes are important for highly innovative research (for example calculate the numbers of Nobel prizes awarded from work in institutes and compare this with the total funding given intramurally to institutes compared with extramural response mode mechanisms), they can be more strategic, and they are also more effective for inward international recruiting. Government should be urged to address the MRCs present financial problems so short term thinking does not dominate future plans for NIMR.

  8.  The discussions concerning NIMRs future in recent years have put it in a potentially fragile condition. High quality research takes years to build up and can be very quickly destroyed. Stabilizing the present research scientists at NIMR must be a priority for UK science, and the easiest way to achieve this is to guarantee the long term future for NIMR. The best solution would be re-location to a central London site of the right size with appropriate resources and governance arrangements to maintain the present NIMR research activities. Should this not be possible in the short to medium time frame, the present Mill Hill site should be maintained keeping NIMR at its present size. NIMR has been a success and its new national and clinical focus could continue to be effectively supported at the Mill Hill site. If MRC could give such a clear guarantee then I believe the present unrest would subside allowing the negotiations concerning relocation to central London to proceed more smoothly.

23 November 2004

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