Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Kathy Cheah, University of Hong Kong

  1.  I write to express my views on the recommendations for the future NIMR. My comments stem from:

    (a)  the perspective of a senior University academic with experience of working in different research environments;

    (b)  over 20 years personal experience of the research environment and culture at the NIMR (1980-present) through association as a visiting scientist at various stages of my scientific career.

  I am currently Chair of Biochemistry, Head of the Department of Biochemistry and the Interim Director of the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine Research Centre for Reproduction, Development and Growth. I have worked previously in the then Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratory at Lincoln's Inn Fields, London. My research is mainly in basic science research but I have also had extensive experience of collaborative research and interactions with clinicians over many years. For example I hosted and mentored an orthopaedic surgeon in basic research during his 12 months research training fellowhip where he was relieved of clinical duties. I am currently leading a large multidisciplinary "Area of Excellence" five-year research programme involving basic scientists and clinicians.

  My experience of the research environment and interaction/collaboration with the many outstanding scientists, junior and senior, in the NIMR has profoundly influenced my own strategic planning as an academic leader in the University of Hong Kong.

  2.  The NIMR has a long established international reputation for excellent scientific research in multidisciplinary areas of importance to both human health and fundamental biology. The Institute attracts many of the best young researchers in the UK and internationally as a highly desirable place for career development, an incubator for fundamental discoveries and is a magnet for many foreign scientists across the world. Having had the privilege of observing the development of research at the NIMR for nearly 20 years both from without and within, I am able to offer an external international perspective on the importance and role of the Institute and comment on the proposed changes. I have contributed in the previous consultation on the future of NIMR as articulated in the MRC Forward Investment Strategy and have been following the subsequent developments and recommendations with interest. I note that the major outcome of the review is that The MRC Task Force have recommended:

  "that the NIMR should be renewed as a multidisciplinary research institute, based in the London area, focused on basic and translational research, and that the plan is to co-locate the NIMR with a major academic and clinical partner: King's College London and University College London as possible options."

  I also note that the current call for views by the select committee arises because " The NIMR's Director, staff and trade union representatives argued strongly that Mill Hill should be considered as a third and equal option for the renewed institute, including for reasons of economy. The Council carefully considered their view that the vision for the NIMR could be realised by investment at Mill Hill, but concluded that the case for co-location with a university and hospital, as set out in the Task Force report, remains persuasive. It could not reconcile the NIMR in its present form with the strategy for achieving the vision proposed by the Task Force".

  3.  In order to assess whether the proposed changes to the NIMR would be the best way forward, one should ask the following questions:

    (a)  Is the NIMR an internationally competitive excellent institution? Has there been translational value for their work? The MRC in its Forward Investment Strategy paper clearly acknowledges the excellence of the NIMR. Professor Raisman's ground breaking work on spinal cord repair leading to future clinical trials is a prime example of the clinical relevance and translational potential of the basic research at the NIMR.

    (b)  The second question to ask is what are the critical factors behind the current high standing of the NIMR and how the proposed changes would impact on this. I believe that the success of the NIMR stems from several critical factors. The well established infrastructure and number of sizeable research Divisions with complementary and multidisciplinary teams with expertise in key areas of biomedical and biological research provide the necessary breadth and supportive environment which has enabled the NIMR to attract, train and nurture exceptionally high quality scientists. The strategy of targeted recruitment of excellent scientists at both junior and senior levels and provision of opportunities for creative research through a stimulating and highly interactive research environment.

    NIMR's independent status as a separate premier research institute enables it to interact with a wide range of basic science and clinical researchers from different academic centres in London and elsewhere. It interacts with some of the best medical schools and life science departments in the UK, such as University College London, the other London University Colleges and medical schools, the Cancer Research UK laboratories in Lincoln's Inn Fields and Clare Hall and others. These advantages considerably enhance the attraction of the NIMR to many excellent scientists from all over the world, as a place for sabbaticals, training and collaborative research. As a result the NIMR has a strong international profile as the flagship national biomedical research institute for the UK. It is internationally respected as one of the premier research centres in the UK for developmental biology, neuroscience and infectious diseases. These are the features of the NIMR which have been appreciated tremendously by many scientists and have made the NIMR such a unique Institute over the years.

    (c)  The third question is should there be a significant shift away from basic to translational research or should equal emphasis be made on both? I believe that both should be emphasized and that there are ample examples where major clinical applications and translations of basic research have been made, not simply by setting out at the first instance to find an application, but rather the importance lies in recognizing the potential application value of discoveries arising from basic research. Therefore emphasis should be on both.

    (d)  The fourth question is how best to achieve the realization of clinical potential of basic discoveries. It is true that interactions between scientists and clinicians are very important and that both should understand the perspective of each other. While it is cited that embedding labs in a clinical setting will facilitate such interactions, I am not aware of solid data showing that that is the only or preferred option. There are many examples of successful partnerships between basic science institutes and industry/clinical medicine such as for the Salk Institute, EMBL, ICRF etc. One also asks if co-location has resulted in increased translational research—perhaps examination of the experience of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology located very close to a hospital setting may be informative. From personal experience it is not the proximity of the lab to the clinic that facilitates interactions, rather it is the resources available to clinicians for laboratory research and the amount of dedicated research time that the clinician can spend interacting with the basic scientist that is important. Indeed the temptation to run to the ward or being on constant call back to the wards disrupts both experiments and interactions. Rather providing time and opportunity for clinicians to really spend time in the lab is the most effective.

    (e)  For the NIMR, considering the major impact changes will have on its future as the flagship British Institute for medical research it seems imperative that all possible scenarios be examined and carefully weighed before making decisions.

(i)  So one asks: have all possibilities been thoroughly explored in regard to their feasibility and their value in ensuring research excellence will be maintained?

(ii)  What is the rationale for excluding consideration of redeveloping NIMR on its present site as an option? The current site has the advantage of ample space for expansion. From the outside, it seems that it would be very expensive to relocate and rebuild the NIMR in central London where space is in short supply, so the cost and benefits should be closely examined and the final decisions should be based on solid evidence.

  5.  Finally I believe that the decision on the future of NIMR is so important to biomedicine in the UK that the decisions should be taken only after thorough, transparent and evidence-based considerations.

23 November 2004

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