House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Science and Technology Committee
Wednesday 20 June 2007
SIR JOHN CHISHOLM
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 20 June 2007
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Mr Brooks Newmark
Dr Bob Spink
Dr Desmond Turner
Witness: Sir John Chisholm, Chairman, Medical Research Council, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: Could I welcome this morning Sir John Chisholm, Chairman of the Medical Research Council, to this one-off scrutiny of the role of newly appointed Chairman of the Medical Research Council. Sir John, this is one of our tasks, and a very pleasurable one, which is set by the Liaison Committee to look at new appointments and indeed to get a flavour of what you see is the relevance of the job and what is your vision for the Medical Research Council. Could I start by asking what attracted you to become the chairman of the MRC?
Sir John Chisholm: First of all, I was delighted to be asked to do it.
Q2 Chairman: Who asked you, by the way?
Sir John Chisholm: I think probably Keith O'Nions.
Q3 Chairman: Could it have been somebody else?
Sir John Chisholm: No, I think it was Keith O'Nions. Sorry for my new inexactitude. Put simply, it seems to me that whereas the latter part of the 20th Century was all about electronics and computing, the first half of the 21st Century the opportunities are in biomedical science. That is going to make such a tremendous difference to the world and it was a rare privilege to be asked to play some role in that.
Q4 Chairman: Do you feel your past experience equips you for that role?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not claim any special knowledge of biomedical science but I have encountered some experience of the management and policy making in scientific institutions.
Q5 Chairman: I am interested in how you actually came to be approached for the role. There is a suspicion out in the community that perhaps it is the Treasury who wants a very successful businessman to come and lead the MRC but that is not so. Can we rule that out?
Sir John Chisholm: If that did happen, they did it in a very covert fashion.
Q6 Chairman: We know how it all works. When you took up your new post, what was your mission for the MRC? Your comments within research also indicated that you had a bit of a mission here. What did you feel you could actually bring? What do you want to achieve?
Sir John Chisholm: I started by saying most of it, which was that it seems biomedical science has the biggest opportunity to contribute to mankind in the next 25 years and the Medical Research Council has an unparalleled record It is known absolutely globally as a beacon of research.
Q7 Chairman: It did not need you really.
Sir John Chisholm: Probably not but I am delighted to be doing it nonetheless.
Q8 Dr Turner: Your background is very much in engineering as a discipline. How do you think this affects your role as chairman of a biomedical research council, there being quite a lot of difference between the nature of engineering research and development and basic biomedical research? Do you think you bring a useful angle to it?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not want to overstate any particular disciplinary angle I bring to it but it is true to say that a lot of the breakthroughs do come from the intersection between sciences. One of the opportunities that is available in the biomedical field is drawing in particularly information sciences into the biomedical arena as a means of gathering and coherently analysing a vast amount of information; drawing it together using statistical tools but also mathematical modelling tools, drawing in engineering disciplines in sensing what one could do. Imaging is a classic example of that. There is a lot of fruit to be garnered from the intersection between sciences. I do not want to claim that as chairman I have the opportunity or the responsibility to inject that, but it is very interesting for me to see that happen.
Q9 Dr Turner: There is a long tradition, as I understand it, of the MRC, certainly in its intramural activity, of bottom-up direction of sciences as opposed to top-down. How do you feel about that? Would you wish to retain that sort of culture or would you rather prefer a top-down approach.
Sir John Chisholm: In the biomedical field where there is so much opportunity for discovery, the knowledge holders are the scientists and therefore most of the invention, most of the discovery and most of the direction is more likely to come from the principal investigators putting forward their propositions. That has been the tradition of the MRC and the evidence is that is the most fruitful way of pursuing the funding of biomedical science.
Q10 Dr Turner: You will continue that tradition?
Sir John Chisholm: Certainly that is the policy of the Council.
Q11 Chairman: I think you rightly opened your remarks this morning by saying how successful MRC has been. It has been an incredibly successful research based organisation in funding and supporting research. What assessment have you made about its effectiveness as an organisation when you arrived? Is it an effective organisation?
Sir John Chisholm: I cannot claim to have myself made such an assessment. As you know, the Council agreed to set up a review of its processes and that was conducted by a joint team of Ernst & Young and the MRC staff themselves and that made certain recommendations.
Q12 Chairman: I will come onto that in a minute but in terms of your first assessment of the MRC, did you feel it was an effective organisation?
Sir John Chisholm: In so far as I have been able to make an assessment, it clearly has been extraordinarily successful. Like every organisation, no matter how successful, there is always the opportunity for improvement.
Q13 Chairman: Your role as chairman, I looked briefly at your incredibly successful past history and you have been very much a hands on chairman. You have been very much involved in not only setting vision and strategy but driving it through. That has been the hallmark - and you can disagree with me if you like - in terms of your professional career. How do you see your role as chairman of MRC? Do you see yourself as executive chairman or how do you see yourself?
Sir John Chisholm: Certainly not as executive chairman, no. Since you mentioned my career, what you would have read in my career thus far is largely as chief executive. I only entered the era of my chairmanship pretty much with the appointment to the MRC.
Q14 Chairman: That is the point I am making. Do you see yourself as an executive chairman rather than as simply a chairman?
Sir John Chisholm: I am clearly a chairman, very much a non-executive chairman. I am chairman of the Council of the MRC. The Council of the MRC is an oversight Council. It has a chief executive who himself runs a management board and therefore the executive function of the MRC is conducted through that route.
Q15 Chairman: You do not see any changes to those relationships?
Sir John Chisholm: Certainly not in those terms, no. The report recommended some clarification of that. Amongst the clarifications was the clarification of the Council becoming more strategic and less executive and that is certainly a direction that I would endorse.
Q16 Chairman: One of the key tasks early on in your chairmanship is to oversee the appointment of a new chief executive.
Sir John Chisholm: To be precise about that, it is not the chairman that makes that appointment.
Q17 Chairman: You oversee it.
Sir John Chisholm: I do not even oversee it. I am a member of the committee that is chaired by the director general of the Research Council.
Q18 Chairman: What is the Council looking for in its new chief executive.
Sir John Chisholm: We have published what are the main terms of reference.
Q19 Chairman: I know that but what are you looking for?
Sir John Chisholm: We are looking for an outstanding individual. If you look through the history of the chief executives of the MRC we have been lucky to have a succession of outstanding individuals and we absolutely aim to keep up that standard.
Q20 Dr Harris: If you hear that you are being seen or regarded as an executive chairman, which you say you do not want to be and you are not supposed to be, would you see that as a failure of what you are trying to do? Would you see it as an outcome to be measured and tried to be improved upon?
Sir John Chisholm: I certainly do not want to be seen as an executive chairman, that is true.
Q21 Dr Harris: Do you think there is a risk that if you are seen as being too proactive, too active, in the day-to-day running that you might scare off some potentially very good candidates for chief executive because they would want, if they are outstanding individuals, more freedom to do what they need to do in that role?
Sir John Chisholm: I can well imagine that the sort of chief executive we are looking for would want to be a chief executive not reporting to an executive chairman. That is clearly something one has the ability to do with direct communication rather than rely upon reputation.
Q22 Linda Gilroy: The Cooksey recommendations in conducting the internal strategic review, it is going further than what was recommended in Cooksey. Can you give us an insight into what the thinking behind that was?
Sir John Chisholm: The Council felt that post-Cooksey it would be useful to look at the way the MRC operated given that Cooksey changed the playing field upon which the MRC was operated. It was a sensible time to look at that.
Q23 Linda Gilroy: You brought in external assistance to conduct the review in the form of Ernst & Young. How did you decide who to bring on board? Why them and how much did it cost?
Sir John Chisholm: I would have to write to you about how much it cost. Being a non-executive chairman, it is not something I follow in any great detail.
Q24 Linda Gilroy: How did you decide that it should be Ernst & Young?
Sir John Chisholm: We took advice.
Q25 Chairman: From whom?
Sir John Chisholm: From, for instance, the director general of the Research Councils.
Q26 Chairman: It was Keith O'Nions who recommended Ernst & Young, not yourself.
Sir John Chisholm: There was a process and so I was asked just now how did we collect them. We took advice and looked for a firm that had relevant experience who would get up and running quickly.
Q27 Linda Gilroy: Were there others in the frame? Was there a formal short listing or a more informal way?
Sir John Chisholm: There were others in the frame and Ernst & Young looked the most credible.
Q28 Linda Gilroy: You had a group of people in charge of this internal review and presumably you looked at a range of options and selected Ernst & Young in a fairly formal way?
Sir John Chisholm: It was not a formal process. It was a process whereby we looked for people who had a solid recommendation behind them and who had relevant experience.
Q29 Chairman: Was anybody else interviewed at all?
Sir John Chisholm: Frankly I do not recall. I would have to write to you to remind myself of that process.
Q30 Linda Gilroy: Given the balance of membership on the steering group, which is 3:1 from MRC and Ernst & Young, how much input did Ernst & Young have into the review and the resulting report?
Sir John Chisholm: They were members of the team.
Q31 Linda Gilroy: Did they take a leading role in shaping how it was looked at or were they there in a more low key advisory capacity?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not want to mislead you and waste your time but my observation of it was when the team came forward and presented its review points there were three review points. They were always joint presentations between the Ernst & Young representatives and those from the MRC.
Q32 Linda Gilroy: They worked as co-partners on it rather than Ernst & Young taking a lead and presenting things and people coming around afterwards.
Sir John Chisholm: Yes. My guess is that because we wanted something done relatively quickly it was important to gather together knowledge holders and the knowledge holders are more likely to come from within the MRC.
Q33 Linda Gilroy: How did you consult the MRC staff and other stakeholders about the changes? How were they bought into the process?
Sir John Chisholm: I would have to gather information to answer that question because I was not actually involved in the study itself. My role was listening to what they had to say.
Q34 Linda Gilroy: The other MRC members and Ernst & Young would have been the ones consulting the staff and stakeholders and you were presented at meetings with the results of that?
Sir John Chisholm: Yes.
Q35 Linda Gilroy: What feedback did you get from that part of the process? We have had some evidence from the MRC five unions hoping for what they refer to, at the end of their letter, as more open consultation and communication in the future, which suggests that perhaps they were not entirely feeling involved in the process of what is a fairly substantial piece of work.
Sir John Chisholm: The study was a study by that team. That was then reviewed by the Council and then the Council decided upon the actions that would follow from that and that was communicated then to the staff.
Q36 Linda Gilroy: What sort of feedback have you had from that?
Sir John Chisholm: I cannot say that the Council has yet reviewed the feedback.
Q37 Linda Gilroy: That has yet to come but you expect that to be an important part of the process of shaping the way ahead?
Sir John Chisholm: Necessarily we need to take staff along with us on all occasions. The chief executive has since been out on a series of communication exercises and I would expect at the next Council meeting to get a report on that.
Q38 Linda Gilroy: One of the key missions of the MRC is public engagement. That does not seem to have been part of the strategic review. How do you envisage that important part of what the Council is committed to taking on about shaping the way ahead. You describe it very eloquently in how you see your mission in the written statement that we have from you. It is a very substantial change in funding with the Cooksey review involving stakeholders and public engagement. Do you see that as an important part of what you are trying to re-shape?
Sir John Chisholm: The MRC has long had a tradition of public engagement and public meetings and I would certainly expect those to continue. As I have said, the chief executive has recently been out on a series of public presentation meetings and that is very much part of what the MRC does.
Q39 Linda Gilroy: You are using the word "presentation" rather than "engagement" and that suggests a one-way process rather than a dialogue. I do not have experience of MRC public engagement so I do not know what the historic experience of that is but would you agree that both in terms of staff and in terms of public engagement there should be a conversation which enables you to take their views into account?
Sir John Chisholm: You are quite right to pull me up on my use of the word "presentation". I think the chief executive, who is here, would probably use a more felicitous term than I did and say that he was involved in public engagement and dialogue.
Q40 Linda Gilroy: Do you see it as part of your role as chairman to be the guardian of how MRC carries out one of its four missions in life, which is public engagement, to see that it should be proper engagement, or would you leave that to the chief executive and the director?
Sir John Chisholm: You are quite right. I will certainly see it as part of my role to ensure that all the things the Council was responsible for actually discharged their duty. I would certainly look forward the chief executive reporting on how he had done it. It is not my job to do that, that is the role properly of the chief executive and the executive team.
Q41 Linda Gilroy: You would accept the role of ensuring that he conducts that in a way that allows proper engagement rather than presentation.
Sir John Chisholm: Exactly. I would certainly expect to be a longstop in the sense of the recipient of any impression from the public or any other bodies who felt that was not being done properly. The chairman acts as a longstop in that way.
Q42 Linda Gilroy: In general you would agree that true consultation means genuine seeking of views before decisions are taken rather than transmitting the understanding of the shape of things to come by the great and the good.
Sir John Chisholm: Yes. Obviously there are areas where public engagement can be a whole lot more effective than others. One of the areas to be reviewed we have been talking about related to the size and shape of the Council. Typically that is not an area where the public get that excited.
Q43 Linda Gilroy: The staff might have some informed views on that?
Sir John Chisholm: Possibly. For instance, the fact that the Council retains very strong scientific credibility is the sort of thing I would expect the staff to be interested in, as indeed the Council is interested in.
Q44 Chairman: Can I ask to go back to the Ernst & Young appointment? Was the chief executive involved in the decision to bring in Ernst & Young?
Sir John Chisholm: Yes, absolutely.
Q45 Chairman: He was involved in the whole process of choosing Ernst & Young.
Sir John Chisholm: Yes. Clearly the Council made the decision and the chief executive was involved in the processes leading up to advising the Council.
Q46 Chairman: It would be very useful if we could have sight of what the process was because it was a highly influential and critical report from the steering group. It would be useful to know how that process of them being chosen came about. You were the chairman of the steering group. In response to Linda Gilroy's questions, you seem to be a little vague about what your role was as chairman of the steering group.
Sir John Chisholm: I apologise for being vague.
Q47 Chairman: My understanding is there were three members of the MRC and one member of Ernst & Young. That was the ratio on the steering committee and you were chairman. What was your role as chairman of that steering committee? What were you trying to achieve?
Sir John Chisholm: I am sorry about being vague. As it happens, I was out of the country at that time.
Q48 Chairman: You did not actually chair the steering committee?
Sir John Chisholm: I did but at least one of the steering group meetings I attended by telephone.
Q49 Chairman: The only meeting you attended was by telephone.
Sir John Chisholm: No, not the only meeting. I said one of the meetings I attended was by telephone. I happened to be out of the country over the period during which the review was being conducted, therefore my input to it was the report-back sessions when I participated with others as the findings or the progress on the review was discussed.
Q50 Dr Harris: On the joint review, in terms of the outcomes, what do you think the main recommendations are among the many in the joint review, the key ones, as far as you are concerned?
Sir John Chisholm: The topics that the Council has taken forward are the changes to the Council itself, the taking up of recommendations that the Council should take a more strategic role and delegate more to the executive board the operational decisions; secondly, that there should be a clearer strategy process within the MRC; and, thirdly, that the MRC should clarify its process for translation.
Q51 Dr Harris: The speed of implementation and the speed of the review, can you say a few words about that? Would you say it was a leisurely exercise, a moderate exercise, or was it all done in a rush or to a tight timetable and, if so, what was the timescale? What dictated the timescale of the review?
Sir John Chisholm: What dictated the timescale of the review was the Council had a series of meetings and it is useful to provide the Council with relevant input for particular meetings. There was a two-day strategy discussion in March and it was useful to have feedback from the review by March.
Q52 Dr Harris: Had it not been for the fact that was the back stop, as it were, it might have been possible to conduct the review at a slower pace?
Sir John Chisholm: It might have been. Indeed, the Council who reviewed it in March might have decided that it was not satisfied with what it was achieving from the review and asked for more work to be done. Those are all possible outcomes.
Q53 Dr Harris: The Joint Review recommends that the current Council of 17 members should be cut to 12. What was the rationale for that?
Sir John Chisholm: Effectiveness probably.
Q54 Dr Harris: What was the evidence that 17 tends to be less effective than 12, or is likely, in the case of the MRC, to be less effective than a smaller Council? Is it because the average size of a FTSE 100 company board is between 9 to 12 and therefore 17 is outwith the current trends in business?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not think it is a special revelation that smaller groups are more effective than larger groups. The Council you have to remember meets relatively few times per annum, maybe half a dozen times per annum.
Q55 Dr Harris: I was a little confused. As a general rule, is this Committee too large in your view? I know it is in the Chairman's view. Where does that end? Should the Cabinet be 9 to 12? Have you passed that on? What about the Research Councils UK? Is there a magic number from some business guru that I have missed out on, which is possible as I am not a business person?
Sir John Chisholm: I am not here to indulge upon management theory. I am asked by you to explain my understanding of the rationale for the recommendations. I went to observe an MRC Council meeting, the last Council meeting before I took over as chairman, and there were 18 people around the table. The meeting lasted two hours and there were 31 items on the agenda. The dynamics of that is that not many people around the table got an opportunity to engage fruitfully in the discussion. It is an observed fact that if I look at the attendance record historically of the MRC it is not as good as one would want.
Q56 Dr Harris: 17 people do not always turn up so on average there might only be 12?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not have the average figure. It is true that the attendance is not as good as we would want. That is usually an indicator that the meeting could be better organised.
Q57 Dr Harris: Could it be an indicator that the scientists on the Committee are doing science. It is an international business. I would never criticise you for being abroad. I know you are not criticising these Council members for being abroad. Could it be the case that in order to retain a critical input of advice from active scientists that you have to have a given number on the Committee and you have to allow them to be active otherwise you get a bunch of retired scientists who might not be in touch.
Sir John Chisholm: You make that speculation and we could discuss that.
Q58 Dr Harris: We should discuss it.
Sir John Chisholm: I do not have further and better evidence than that which was considered by the review board and they came up with their recommendation which the Council considered and was convinced by.
Q59 Dr Harris: Will the Council include the funding board chairs, will it include representatives of the MRC research institutes and will it include a member from the universities? Since I mentioned one vested interest we should mention the others.
Sir John Chisholm: Half the Council will be eminent scientists.
Q60 Dr Harris: That is six-ish.
Sir John Chisholm: Certainly six including the chief executive. In amongst those six you want a mixture of experience which covers the field so far as the important constituents, so far as one can. Certainly you need experience of chairing a board and you need experience from the university sector. We have not done this process of selecting that group yet so I cannot tell you what the answer is but the Council is aware of the need. Indeed, when we discussed this at the Council the points you are making were certainly made. It is important to keep a balance so the Council as a whole is well informed with the appropriate experience.
Q61 Dr Harris: I asked you about the research councils, institutes and universities, those two stakeholders or vested interests, depending on your perspective. Would there be people on the Council from that perspective or would that be down to good fortune from that point of view?
Sir John Chisholm: We have not selected who the Council members are going to be and no decisions have been made one way or the other. The important thing is to have a good representative group, not representative in the sense of representing a sectorial interest but representative in the sense of having experience they could bring to the Council discussions.
Q62 Dr Harris: In proposing two new directorates, one on translation and another on strategy and evaluation, and then also the strategy advisory group, is that a streamlining of the existing system in structural terms or is it necessary, from your perspective, to add structural complexity in order to streamline and so on?
Sir John Chisholm: I think what you are quoting from there is the recommendation in the Review. The Council, when it considered the recommendations in the review, decided that in so far as dealing with issues of translation, it would be better to wait until the appointment of the next chief executive is made for the chief executive to come forward with recommendations as to how he would like to organise the MRC.
Q63 Dr Turner: Can I return briefly to the question of the Council. In reducing from 17 to 12 you have taken off five scientists but you still have the same number of administrators. You have changed the balance of the scientific input into Council. Will you take that into account when you appoint a new Council.
Sir John Chisholm: I want to make sure I have understood your question.
Q64 Dr Turner: The ratio of scientists to administrators.
Sir John Chisholm: What we need to make sure is that we have appropriate scientific input, which means half the Council should be eminent scientists.
Q65 Dr Turner: Input or influence? They can be quite different.
Sir John Chisholm: The scientists clearly speak with immense authority at the Council.
Q66 Dr Turner: The main question I want to address is the nature of the MRC future programmes. Ernst & Young's report is written in management speak so it needs a little translation. I would like to know exactly what is meant by research with a purpose and how it is conceived as relating to translational research in terms of the Ernst & Young thinking and your thinking.
Sir John Chisholm: Of course the report by the team, which we call the Ernst & Young report, was written by them so you have to ask them exactly what they mean. I can tell you what I believe it means, which perhaps is a useful thing. I interpret that as one of the significant and important features of biomedical research is that it has an output which is of enormous importance to the world, which is health. The purpose that is related there is not the purpose of a specific piece of research but the purpose of the research as a totality, the research into an area which ultimately has an enormous benefit for mankind.
Q67 Dr Turner: I think my problem is that the report as written seems to almost regard translational research output from a rather mechanistic point of view whereas in reality it is rather a slippery animal and is much more complicated than that. I want to be assured, and possibly others, that there is no question of downgrading the importance of basic research in the MRC's activity. That has been the feed stock for the translation process to date and if you have not got that feed stock you have not got anything to translate.
Sir John Chisholm: I am delighted to do that, which is to assure you categorically that there is no sense in which basic research is downgraded as a consequence of this report.
Q68 Dr Turner: That is very good to hear. Can you tell us how your translational board within the MRC is going to relate to the MRC's and the National Institute of Health Translational Research Board. Why do you need a separate one within MRC do you think?
Sir John Chisholm: As I said a moment ago, that is part of the issues that the Council parked and said let us wait until we have a new chief executive and wait and see how the OSCHR is going to define the roles of the things for which it has responsibility.
Dr Turner: You are not anticipating that for the moment.
Q69 Chairman: If in fact the new chief executive of the MRC comes from a clinician background, would that not indicate a fear that Dr Turner is raising that in fact the emphasis may shift towards translational rather than basic research within the organisation? Is it a possibility that an eminent scientist who is an eminent clinician could be chief executive?
Sir John Chisholm: First of all, I want to go back to my categorical statement that the MRC Council in all the debates that I have participated in has been absolutely clear of the fundamental importance of basic science and the role the MRC has in furthering basic science. There has never been any question about that. I cannot imagine the selection committee which I am participating on selecting anyone who was not similarly committed to basic science.
Q70 Dr Turner: Turning to the future of the NIMR, which has been the subject of some debate, I could not help noticing that in an interview with you published in The Biochemist you took exception to the criticism in our report of the MRC's capacity for project management. Perhaps I could remind you why we said that. It was because the MRC spent £28 million on buying the NTH site to move NIMR and went through the whole process of the task force but at no point had it done a feasibility study or proper costings. When the feasibility study was finally done and when it was properly costed the whole thing turned out to be totally impossible. That was why we criticised project management. You are now looking at the British library site in concert with UCL and Cancer Research UK which is possibly an exciting prospect but can you assure the Committee that before going any further with such suggestions - and perhaps you could tell us where it has got to - the proper feasibility studies will be carried out?
Sir John Chisholm: I am at a disadvantage in talking about the purchase of the NTH site. It preceded me and I have not researched that in immense detail. All I would say is it is useful to have it, so to speak, as a card in the game we are trying to play. Let us wait until the story is fully played out before coming to a conclusion as to whether things that were done were wise or not wise. I would also say that in so far as I have reviewed what has been done thus far, not doing studies is not one of the criticisms I would bring out. It seemed to me that this whole story has been a wealth of studies of one sort of another. I do not need to explain to this Committee how difficult this whole process has been. I do not think it is useful to go into a long debate as to why it has been so difficult. What I would say is that what is now emerging is a very exciting vision. There is a lot of difficulty in making it happen but it really is a very exciting vision. If we can pull it off I think it will be something that we will all be very proud of.
Q71 Dr Turner: I am seeking to establish whether you have the information to tell you whether you can accommodate what is needed on the site in terms of the current research power of NIMR and whether it can be done at a cost that the Treasury will not quail at because if the Treasury did, it would be stopped in its tracks again.
Sir John Chisholm: I do not know the answer to those questions. There are teams working on that at the moment. As I said a moment ago, there are a lot of challenges to be overcome and amongst those are exactly the points you are alluding to.
Q72 Dr Turner: You are not going to fall into the trap that the MRC put itself into in the previous attempt?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not know which one of the traps you are referring to; there seems to be quite a choice. The people involved were all committed and capable people. It is more complicated now because it is now working in partnership with highly independent bodies and therefore, if you forgive me, I will not say much about that because I have to take account of their views.
Q73 Dr Turner: Can we concentrate on how you think this will improve the MRC's capacity to participate in translational research given of course that one of the problems of operating on a Central London site in any event is not just the capital costs but the inbuilt 25 per cent more higher running costs of an institution on the site in Central London as opposed to on the periphery of London.
Sir John Chisholm: The policy of the Council, which has been its policy for some time, has been that so far as possible institutes should exist in the community, including academic and clinical facilities. That is not a policy that I have generated; it pre-dated me by some way. In so far as I scrutinise that, it looks to me entirely consistent with the policies that most major funders have. When you are not little Johnny out of step, just doing what other people say is the right policy, that does give you some confidence that you are on the right track. It is not a surprise to me that the Council has been vigorous in saying this is what we want to do with a critical new investment. The question then is where? One of the things you are trying to create is a critical mass attractor. If you get lots of good people together, other good people want to come and join it, other investors want to be part of that same scene. It is the Cambridge effect, if you like, or the Silicon Valley effect. The potency of that attractor effect is probably a lot more important than premium on the land. If you can get that effect going, the potency, the efficiency, you get out of getting that critical mass of excellent people together is so large that you can afford to pay more for the land that you stand on. That is why so many people invest in Boston or the Silicon Valley despite the fact it is a whole lot more expensive doing that than in Texas or other parts of the United States.
Q74 Dr Turner: Are you able to tell us anything, any hint, of the timescale that you are working on in respect of the British Library site?
Sir John Chisholm: I am a little reluctant to be too specific on that subject for the reason that if I was it might affect the viability of the project. If you do not mind, I would prefer not to be very specific.
Q75 Dr Turner: You are aware of the potential pitfalls and difficulties.
Sir John Chisholm: I have read some of the documents and I am more than aware of the pitfalls involved.
Q76 Chairman: Finally on that section, have you actually got a price on the British Library site? Do you know what it is going to cost? What are DCMS asking for it?
Sir John Chisholm: DCMS, as I understand it, are going to auction it so it will be a market price.
Q77 Chairman: Do you know when that auction will take place?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not have a date for it right now.
Chairman: Is it imminent?
Dr Turner: Do you have any back-up plans if you do not win the auction?
Q78 Chairman: Will it be by the end of the year do you think?
Sir John Chisholm: I believe it will be by the end of the year.
Chris Mole: Is there a back-up plan?
Q79 Chairman: I would not like to play poker with you.
Sir John Chisholm: I do apologise. I am in a difficult situation.
Chairman: We do understand that and that is perfectly fine.
Q80 Chris Mole: The Joint Review has made a number of comments about the balance between the intramural and extramural research funding. Do any of the strategic and structural changes at the MRC, and between the MRC and government and research institutions, affect that balance at all?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not think any of those things affect that balance. The issue of the balance has been one that has been a topic of policy discussion at the Council for decades and remains one. The Council's policy remains that the demand role of funding should be used as the main vehicle but when the demand role of funding is not going to achieve the strategic purpose that it is looking for it is prepared to invest in a specific strategic investment.
Q81 Chris Mole: Has part of that debate included a look at the relative efficacy of the intramural and extramural programmes? Can you expand a bit more on why the default position therefore is to go extramural and are you planning to identify the knowledge on the relative efficiency of the different sorts of sources of research?
Sir John Chisholm: What I can tell you is what I have been told and relates to the evidence I have seen, and that is that the efficiency in terms of the bibliometric output of the Institute is very good. What you have called the intramural units is good. Of course, you would expect that because that is what they are specifically for; so it is good news that that is good, and that justifies the level of expenditure that we put through that process. However, it is something that we have to keep looking for because we have to make sure that the money is being allocated in that way for good reason.
Q82 Chris Mole: The other thing in this area is contingency funding. How do you determine that balance between contingency and other funds, and why are you currently planning to increase the contingency fund?
Sir John Chisholm: The Council feels that it should be able to respond to new needs as they arise. The new need could be that something particularly exciting has been discovered and we should be able to increase funding in a particular area, or some new health challenge emerges and we should respond to it. Bird flu - that sort of thing.
Q83 Chris Mole: You did quite well out of the bird flu, so why do you feel that you need to extend it further?
Sir John Chisholm: Frankly, I am not the right person to ask as to how we were able to respond so well under bird flu. Colin Blakemore, if he was here, would give you a very good story on that. I am embarrassed that I cannot tell you exactly how that was done, but it was done well, I agree. It is exactly that sort of thing which we need to be able to do quickly, and we need to make sure that we are not so locked up in commitments that, when an unexpected opportunity arises, we cannot respond to it.
Q84 Chris Mole: Is it that you have evidence that you expect there will be more unexpected incidents of that sort? Always expect the unexpected!
Sir John Chisholm: It is hard to answer that question, frankly. I do not know what to expect of the unexpected.
Chairman: I expect we do not either!
Q85 Dr Iddon: Sir John, what do you expect will be the biggest impacts on the work of the MRC of the creation of the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research, OSCHR?
Sir John Chisholm: Clearly OSCHR's principal role is to advise the Government on the allocation of resources. That is why OSCHR is so important to us, because OSCHR will be advising and has already advised the Government in relation, for instance, to the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Q86 Dr Iddon: Are you expecting to work much more closely with the other part of OSCHR - the NIHR?
Sir John Chisholm: The vision that the Cooksey Report came up with is something which we absolutely sign up to. There is a huge opportunity in the UK to use the power of our absolutely world-class basic research, alongside the health system we have in the UK, which has coherence and scale, and to put these things closer together and to leverage that resource. That is a huge opportunity we have. Mechanistically, it was more difficult. The creation of the NIHR should make that easier.
Q87 Dr Iddon: Obviously, colleagues in the National Health Service who do applied research would say that they just cannot do enough of it because they cannot get the funding. Do you think that the creation of OSCHR will dilute basic research - the very question that Dr Turner asked you earlier - because there will be an increased demand from the National Health Service to do their applied research?
Sir John Chisholm: If you are asking me the question, do I think basic research would be diluted because the National Health Service want more money to do applied research, my answer to that is no, I do not think that will happen.
Q88 Dr Iddon: I guess that if the NHS consultants and their technicians feel that they are short of money, there should be an increased demand on the Comprehensive Spending Review to increase the resources of OSCHR.
Sir John Chisholm: I am not going to be drawn into a debate upon the Department of Health's budget. All I will say is to repeat what is said in the Cooksey Report and which has been repeated by John Bell several times: that there will be no dilution of the basic research and the funding of the translational research. If it needs more funding, then the more funding will come from a different place.
Q89 Dr Iddon: The creation of OSCHR brings you much closer, we hope anyhow, to the NHS R&D systems in England, but will it bring you much closer to the equivalent systems in the devolved governments?
Sir John Chisholm: The creation of NIHR will not do that, but we are certainly working on building upon the very good relations we already have with the devolved governments, particularly in Scotland. I think that we have some very beneficial relationships in Scotland right now.
Q90 Dr Iddon: The Joint Review was a bit critical - in fact more than a bit critical - of your relationships with other Research Councils. Indeed, we talk to people from the other Research Councils quite a lot in this Committee, and I think that members of the Committee would agree that we have picked up that criticism too, separately from the Joint Review picking it up. Do you accept that criticism and, if so, what are you going to do about working much closer with the other Research Councils - who have something to offer to you, obviously?
Sir John Chisholm: I am sorry, of course, and I deeply regret if there is valid criticism of the MRC. I would have to come back to you as to what the specific answers to that are, because it is not a subject that I have been deeply engaged in thus far. I have my first meeting collectively with the other councils coming up in a couple of weeks' time, so I will perhaps be better informed after that.
Q91 Dr Iddon: Do you think the time has come to look at where the headquarters of MRC lie? You are very London-centric, of course. There is a bit more outside London which the other Research Councils engage with, and there is criticism of the MRC being a bit aloof from the central Research Council core in Swindon. Have you any comments to make on that criticism?
Sir John Chisholm: It is not one that has been made to me particularly forcefully, I would have to say. It is not totally unknown to me, but it has not been made to be particularly forcefully. I am sure the new chief executive would review that when he gets appointed, because it is an obvious thing to review. However, there are benefits also for being in London.
Q92 Dr Harris: Do you accept that, in principle, if you prioritise something then, relatively speaking, you must de-prioritise something or everything else?
Sir John Chisholm: It is not always a zero-sum game, but I do accept the principle that prioritisation has gains and losses.
Q93 Dr Harris: When you say in your article in Research Fortnight, "...there will be an increased emphasis on research translation in future" and "We will increase our commitment to developing research findings for application in new therapies", do you accept that, relatively speaking - even if it is in the context of growing budgets - there will be a relative decreased emphasis on non-translation and a relative non-increase in commitment to other research, such as basic research, or at least a perception of that?
Sir John Chisholm: I am always reluctant to get too engaged in discussing perceptions separate from reality.
Q94 Dr Harris: Good. Then let us stick to the reality.
Sir John Chisholm: The reality is that I do not expect the basic research to be negatively impacted in any way.
Q95 Dr Harris: It would be fair to say, therefore, that there will also be an increased emphasis on basic research and you will increase your commitment to basic research, in exactly the same way?
Sir John Chisholm: No, what I have said is I do not expect the basic research to be negatively impacted in any way. What I hope - I have now moved on from "expect" to "hope" - is that the greater attention that we put on to translation will be so successful that the case for more investment in basic research will be even stronger, and both sides will therefore benefit.
Q96 Dr Harris: Everyone wins.
Sir John Chisholm: I think that is a real possibility because, as I said earlier on, I think this really is the area where more good can be done than any other area of science.
Q97 Dr Harris: My final question - and I am grateful for the indulgence of the Chairman - is to ask you about this issue of extramural research being the default option. In response to the question from my colleague, you said that, bibliometrically, the institutes do the intramural research very well. I am curious as to why the default option should be extramural research. In your answer, can you address this point? "MRC's traditional ability to pick outstanding scientists and give them long-term support through its intramural programme has produced some of the best basic and applied medical research in the post-war period." Professor Sir David Weatherall goes on to say that he thinks it is "absolutely vital that intramural programmes continue to form a major part of the work of the MRC". If you accept those two points, is that not at risk from making something else the default option?
Sir John Chisholm: No, because despite the fact that we have had the default option being extramural research, as I said earlier on, the MRC continues to invest strategically in units in institutes where that cannot be done through the extramural programme.
Q98 Dr Turner: Can I follow that question up? There is this possibility outstanding that, if NIMR cannot be successfully moved to a new site in London, the MRC's existing policy is that the institute should be broken up - so that there is a potential threat.
Sir John Chisholm: I do not think the MRC's policy can be described as that the NIMR should be broken up.
Q99 Dr Turner: But to all intents and purposes?
Sir John Chisholm: The policy at the moment is to have a world-class institute, based upon the sciences of the NIMR. That is the policy. The policy is to invest hugely in that, in renewing it for the 21st century.
Q100 Dr Turner: I appreciate that, Sir John, but the Council has been pretty specific in saying that, if that cannot be achieved, the Mill Hill site will close anyway and, by implication, the scientists and departments currently at Mill Hill would be distributed amongst universities, presumably.
Sir John Chisholm: The Council has not come to any view in my hearing of what would happen in those circumstances, which we do not envisage. What the Council intends to do is to make a major investment in the NIMR. It is planned around a location in London at the current time.
Q101 Chairman: Could I finally say to you, Sir John, that there was an existing business plan, and I presume that you will need a new business plan to put before the Treasury in order to make the British Library site come to fruition. Is that correct?
Sir John Chisholm: We are working on the new vision, yes.
Q102 Chairman: The new vision, once it is complete, will then require a business plan to put before the Treasury, in order to get the funding to buy the site. Is that right?
Sir John Chisholm: Yes. I am not going to go through the exact timing.
Q103 Chairman: No, I am not asking you to do that.
Sir John Chisholm: But in principle you are right.
Q104 Chairman: It is really picking up on Dr Turner's point about the existing proposal. Is that scrapped now? The last time you were before the Committee we were told that there was a business case which was being put to the Treasury on the Temperance Hospital site, and that there was a zero default option with the existing NIMR site at Mill Hill. What has happened to those? Are they just shelved now? Are they scrapped, or what?
Sir John Chisholm: A case was built up for the investment at the NTH.
Q105 Chairman: Yes, and that had gone to the Treasury.
Sir John Chisholm: No.
Q106 Chairman: It never went to the Treasury?
Sir John Chisholm: It had not reached that stage, but it had been passed through the Council, who were prepared to support it.
Q107 Chairman: I understand that, and it had gone to the Office of Science and Innovation, on its way to the Treasury. What has happened to it?
Sir John Chisholm: It is in abeyance at the moment; because, after that, the larger vision emerged.
Chairman: I understand that. I just wanted to know whether it is dead.
Chris Mole: In limbo.
Q108 Chairman: You will never really resurrect that, will you?
Sir John Chisholm: I never say "never". We reached a certain stage with it. Then a new and more interesting opportunity arose and we are pursuing that. We have not gone back to rake over the NTH proposal. It reached the stage it reached, and that is where it is.
Chairman: On that note, we thank you very much indeed, Sir John, for giving us your time this morning.