Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Heads of Division Committee, National Institute for Medical Research


  The Heads of Divisions of NIMR welcome changes that enhance the future development of the National Institute for Medical Research. However, a move to central London will lead to the inevitable loss of features of the Mill Hill site that are important determinants of NIMR's success in multidisciplinary research and clinical translation. We are greatly concerned that the Mill Hill site has been excluded as an option for future development, and by the procedures which have resulted in this decision.


  1.  We welcome the MRC Council's endorsement of the future NIMR as a multidisciplinary institute, building upon its basic science core with an increased emphasis on clinical translation, on a single site in London. However, the Council proposes only to consider two central London bids and to exclude the option for development of the renewed NIMR at Mill Hill. As we have always stated, and reiterate here, we are not opposed to any change that offers real improvements. We believe that investment in a renewed NIMR on the Mill Hill site would serve the MRC's vision best and would be by far the most cost-effective option. We fear that, in pursuit of its vision of an institute embedded in a hospital and HEI setting, the MRC will end up spending large sums of public money on building an Institute with facilities, resources and a culture that are inferior to those that already exist at Mill Hill. In excluding Mill Hill as a formal option, MRC is putting vision before common sense.

  2.  The recommendation of the Task Force that NIMR moves to central London is based on a view that the potential advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It is therefore essential that any decision is based upon a proper evidence-based analysis of the key factors. The NIMR culture of interactiveness and cross-disciplinarity, excellent basic research and clinical translation are the result of the co-location of disciplines within a single building at a convenient location, extensive on-site animal facilities, and independence from a specific HEI/hospital. Future scientific developments, increased interactions with MRC Technology, inward investment from industrial and/or academic partners, an increase in our national role in the provision of large-scale facilities and in training of clinician scientists, will all require space. There are obvious and considerable difficulties in recreating these essential features of the Mill Hill site in central London. The Task Force report presented no data or informed discussion relevant to the central issue of whether basic/translational research is more effectively conducted by a multidisciplinary institute on an HEI-embedded site rather than an independent site.

  3.  A cost/benefit analysis can only realistically be carried out by direct comparison between Mill Hill and the central London options once the full costs for each are properly assessed. Following Council's meeting on 13 October, we were asked to prepare a last-minute "enhanced" Mill Hill proposal. It was emphasised that this would not be considered as a formal option, but rather an enhanced "baseline" against which the two central London options would be assessed. In the not unlikely event that neither UCL nor KCL meets the criteria for Council's vision, the MRC has stated that the entire issue would be reconsidered. The Select Committee can imagine how we feel about that prospect. It is foreseeable that a third protracted enquiry run by the MRC will lead to a mass exodus of senior scientific and support staff and a break-up of the structure and culture of the existing Institute.

  4.  The comparison of the three sites involves scientific, organisational and financial issues. Analysis of the advantages and disadvantages will be a complex exercise. We would like to know if independent scientific opinion will be sought by the steering committee set up by Council to assess the bids. For example, proximity to expertise in disciplines such as chemistry, physics, nanoengineering and mathematics was a major motivation of the Task Force in recommending relocation, yet these disciplines are dispersed across the multi-site campuses of KCL and UCL. Who will advise the MRC steering committee on whether this is as serious a problem as it appears to be? Finally, what opportunity will NIMR representatives be given to comment on the bids—for example, on whether the proposed animal facilities are adequate. We have raised the key question of NIMR input several times with the MRC, but have yet to receive a response.


  5.  It is clear that some Task Force members felt that an enhanced Mill Hill option should be considered on an equal basis with the central London options. This was in fact the majority view expressed by those present at the last Task Force meeting. It was highly inappropriate that no formal minutes were kept at this or any other Task Force meeting. As a result, there were protracted disagreements between Task Force members about what was or was not discussed and agreed. This is evident from the selection of email exchanges between Task Force members that has been published (especially those from the period leading up to publication of the final Task Force report). However, only a selection of the email correspondence has been published by MRC. We urge the Committee to ask that all of these communications be made available as we believe they will provide a unique indication of the direction of the Task Force discussions and the unsatisfactory manner in which the Task Force was conducted.

  6.  We are astonished that the MRC managed a year-long, time-consuming and expensive review process without properly discussing the future proposals from NIMR for an enhanced NIMR at its current site, and whether this could serve the strategic vision of MRC. This is of especial concern given that two of the Task Force members (whose votes contributed to the final 5:4 majority to exclude the Mill Hill option) never visited the Institute, and one of these did not attend a single meeting in person.[5] (A request by our Task Force representatives for attendance of Task Force members at these meetings and conferences calls to be put on public record was denied by the Task Force secretariat). In his most recent discussions with us, the MRC CEO offered two reasons for excluding Mill Hill as an option:

    (i)  his prejudice (sic) that NIMR staff would not engage in discussions of the other options if the Mill Hill option were considered; and

    (ii)  its inclusion might preclude later bids from other HEIs (eg Imperial College) being considered. These are not reasoned scientific arguments for excluding the Mill Hill option, a point forcefully made by our Director, John Skehel, in his presentation to Council at their last meeting (see Statement from NIMR Director 13 October at The CEO's failure to provide staff with a credible reason for excluding Mill Hill as an option exemplifies a managerial approach that has repeatedly undermined productive engagement with NIMR staff.

  7.  The management consultants hired to facilitate the business of the Task Force carried out an extensive public consultation on a range of options for NIMR, including the key issue of NIMR's location. Individual responders voted overwhelmingly (85%) for a model in which a renewed NIMR conducts basic and translational research at a single site, and remains independent of any HEI/hospital. This conclusion holds up even after discarding all responders with any past or present connections with NIMR (of which, not surprisingly, there were a significant number). It appears that the Task Force placed much greater weight on the small number of organisational responses than the opinions of the vast majority of individual responders.


  8.  NIMR at Mill Hill is a major national asset of proven excellence. We are unanimous in our belief that the exclusion of Mill Hill as an option is a mistake, arising from another flawed review process by the MRC (the first being the widely discredited recommendations from the FIS process in 2003). The MRC is proposing to move NIMR to central London without adequate cost/benefit evaluation. Such a move is certain to be both costly and disruptive, and carries with it a real risk of destroying world-class research teams and clinical links that have taken many years to establish. The vision that is driving the MRC to this decision shows little understanding of the essential components that maintain the current highly collaborative interdisciplinary culture at Mill Hill. The exclusion of Mill Hill as an option is based on a narrow majority of a split Task Force and a poorly run review process. The MRC is damaging its reputation in the eyes of the scientific community both within the UK and abroad. We hope that the Committee will probe the reasons for this state of affairs, establish the real reasons behind the MRC's determination to close NIMR at Mill Hill, and make recommendations about how the MRC should act to restore the confidence of the scientific community in its management of strategic reviews.

  NIMR Heads of Division Committee:

Tim Bliss Division of Neurophysiology
Tony Holder Division of Parasitology
Dimitris Kioussis Division of Molecular Immunology
Lee Johnston Division of Yeast Genetics
Kathleen Mathers Biological Services
Tim Mohun Division of Developmental Biology
Justin Molloy Division of Physical Biochemistry
Anne O'Garra Division of Immunoregulation
Vassilis Pachnis Division of Molecular Neurobiology
Iain Robinson Division of Molecular Neuroendocrinology
Jonathan Stoye Division of Virology
Willie Taylor Division of Mathematical Biology
Victor Tybulewicz Division of Immune Cell Biology
David Wilkinson Division of Developmental Neurobiology
23 November 2004

5   The Task Force originally consisted of 10 members, five nominated by the MRC and five by NIMR. An NIMR nominee, Professor Peter Gruss, resigned because he could not devote the necessary time to Task Force business. Professor Gruss is head of the Max Planck Society, a major funder of research institutes in Germany. The member of the Task Force who did not attend any meetings in person was Professor Alan Bernstein, head of CIHR, the main biomedical funding agency in Canada, which supports only extramural university research. We do not know if Professor Bernstein similarly offered to resign. Back

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