Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills First Report

First Report


1. On 5 December 2007 the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and UCL (University College London) announced the creation of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), to be located in central London next to the British Library and St Pancras station. The announcement was prompted by the decision of the Government to sell the site to the partners for this purpose. The Prime Minister said:

We strongly support plans to create Europe's leading centre for medical research in the heart of London. It will maintain Britain's position at the forefront of global medical research, strengthen the UK economy and, through its links with the NHS, has huge potential to change patients' lives.

By taking groundbreaking scientific discoveries right through to treatment, I expect that the 1,500 staff who will be part of this project will develop many of the cures, vaccines and drugs from which the NHS and its patients will benefit in years to come.[1]

2. UKCMRI will bring together science teams from the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research, the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute and UCL. The Wellcome Trust will fund scientists within the centre, who will also be expected to work closely with researchers from other nearby universities and research-intensive hospitals. The technology arms of MRC and Cancer Research UK will also be relocated to the site to encourage industry-researcher collaboration. The centre is expected to open in 2013.

The Committee's interest

3. The establishment of the UKCMRI is potentially one of the most exciting developments in UK research for some time. It is also one of the most high risk, involving an estimated cost of £500m, including nearly £300m of public funds through the MRC.[2] There is therefore a clear public interest argument that the proposals and their implementation should be closely scrutinised by Parliament. In addition, the former Science and Technology Committee had a long-standing interest in the future of the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), the largest of the existing institutes to be merged to form the new centre.[3] We therefore decided as one of our first tasks as the newly constituted Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee to request an update from the MRC on plans for NIMR. Following receipt of this paper, and the subsequent announcement on the UKCMRI, we held an oral evidence session with each of the four partners in the project. In view of certain issues which remain unresolved by the evidence session, we have decided to publish this short Report. The transcript of the evidence session, together with the update and a further memorandum submitted by the MRC to address follow-up questions, is published with this Report.

The Committee's concerns

4. The Committee has three areas of concern about the UKCMRI project and its management. First, there is the question of the finances. There are few hard figures available about the eventual cost of the project. It is in any case salutary to recall that the estimated cost of the failed project based at the former National Temperance Hospital site rose from £320 million to £367 million between July 2005 and December 2006, an increase of nearly 15% in under 18 months.[4] The current estimate for the UKCMRI is £500 million, which the MRC Chief Executive described as "a broad figure" and "a reasonably accurate figure overall", but with some caveats, including the cost of the land which was a further £85 million.[5] The breakdown between the four partners was given in oral evidence as "round about £260 million overall" from the MRC, £150 million from Cancer Research UK, £100 million from the Wellcome Trust and £46 million from UCL.[6] MRC later clarified that "MRC has agreed to contribute £47m to the cost of purchasing the [British Library] site and in addition we are planning on the basis that our contribution to the building will be of the order of £250m taking account of current estimates of inflation".[7] We are concerned that these figures are unacceptably vague and that MRC should ensure as a matter or urgency that it is in a position to provide a more accurate breakdown of its contribution.

5. The funding from the three private partners is not open to scrutiny by this Committee but the ability of the MRC to meet its projected share of the costs is. The MRC plans to meet the £297m bill through the sale of the National Temperance Hospital site (purchased in 2006 at a cost of £28m), the eventual sale of the NIMR site at Mill Hill, presumably after planned completion of the move to UKCMRI in 2013, and through a bid to the Large Facilities Capital Fund (LFCF), for which a Business Case has to be approved by RCUK, DIUS and the Treasury, successively.[8] The bid currently submitted to the LFCF is for £118m, which is less than the £140m earmarked from the fund for the NTH project.[9] However, this figure was based on plans to use significant funds built up in the MRC's own Commercial Fund for this purpose. Recently the Treasury decided to invoke previously unused rules to claw back £92m of these savings, leaving the MRC faced with preparing a bid to the LCFC for £180m to £200m to meet their undertakings in respect of the UKCMRI.[10] The Treasury has also put a cap on the gross income from the fund.[11] We are at a loss to understand the rationale for this behaviour by the Treasury and request an explanation. Encouraging the MRC to be self-financing to a degree and then appropriating its savings, thus forcing the MRC to come cap in hand for funding, is hardly redolent of good faith. Doubts over the MRC's ability to finance the project and science on at least the current scale must be resolved as soon as possible.

6. Our second major area of concern is the timetable and project management of this ambitious scheme. One obvious potential source of difficulty is the MRC's dependence upon funding by the LFCF. Securing funding approval can be a long-drawn-out process, as the MRC will know from previous experience. In this case, the Outline Business Case for £118m has been submitted to RCUK and to DIUS. Before a final decision is taken, the MRC has to complete and gain approval for a full Business Case which will be "prepared once the design work is completed".[12] We note that project managers and designers have not yet been appointed, and that MRC anticipates that the timetable for this will "be completed during the first half of next year".[13] In any case, the current preliminary work on the LFCF bid relates to the original request for £118m, rather than the larger sum which will be needed. MRC told us that these additional funds will not be needed until the next CSR period[14] which raises the possibility of further uncertainty and delay whilst awaiting the result of the next Spending Round for 2011/2012.

7. Other challenges to the timetable could arise from the competition for construction and project management skills posed by the 2012 Olympics and any delays in gaining planning approval. We note that at the time of our evidence session, the partners had not opened discussions with Camden Borough Council, the local authority for the site and that a planning brief in 2003 indicated that Camden wished to put housing on the site.[15] The objections expressed by residents to both the loss of land for housing and the proposed use of the site for a medical research centre indicates that gaining planning permission may not be straightforward.

8. Our third and most important concern is the science vision for the centre and what, if anything, is likely to be lost from the current research portfolios supported by the partners. The scientific planning is to be led by a committee under the chairmanship of Sir Paul Nurse, President of Rockefeller University, New York, which will determine the shape and direction of the research work to be carried out and the facilities that will be needed to enable this. The committee will:

… look at the detail of the science that is actually being proposed. They will look clearly as to what is going on in NIMR, they will actually look also at what is going on in the London Institute of Cancer Research UK, together with the work that is going on at University College, and the importance is actually to begin to develop a cohesive unit to ensure that those elements that can actually work very well in a complementary fashion are the ones that are actually being brought together on this site, to help determine how best to use the capacity of that site to further the sort of integrated science that we would like to see.[16]

This will include determining controversial questions such as the provision of high security laboratories and animal housing on the site.[17] The MRC Chief Executive also stressed that the committee would "have the capacity to make alterations and changes as we go along, such that [the strategy] remains responsive".[18]

9. We welcome the appointment of Sir Paul Nurse and the delegation of the development of the science vision to such a committee, described by the MRC Chief Executive as providing an "independent opinion".[19] We would be concerned if the membership of the committee proved to be too close to the executive and failed to have sufficient current scientific expertise. According to the MRC Chief Executive, Sir Paul Nurse has proposed that there should be representation from all four partners and "has been involved in discussions as to who those representatives should be".[20] He can veto an appointment, but "he does not have total control" on membership.[21] We will take a close interest in the membership of Sir Paul Nurse's committee and will expect it to include representatives of researchers as well as the directors of affected institutes and also as a result to take on board valid concerns of researchers at the Mill Hill site.

10. In the meantime, before the scientific vision is developed and expounded, there is the potential for great uncertainty among current staff of the four partners, especially at NIMR. We were reassured that the MRC Chief Executive emphasised that no assumption need be made about "breaking up" the institutes, given the large capacity of the site.[22] However, he also told us that "nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out at this stage at all"[23] and that "it is impossible for me at this point to give an assurance that all the staff and the work currently undertaken are necessarily going to transfer over".[24]

11. We appreciate that the work has not yet begun to determine the science vision of a centre which is still some six years off realisation and accept that the Nurse committee needs to have a free hand in determining the future direction of the new UKCRMI. However, we expect the MRC in particular to give serious consideration to the impact upon NIMR staff of the continuing uncertainty over the mission of the institute and the future of individual research programmes and facilities. The MRC Chief Executive correctly identified that "the history that NIMR has been put through" had led to "considerable apprehension by staff" and that "it is going to be up to us to ensure that we can convince them that this can go ahead and that the science is not going to be impacted on adversely".[25] We welcome his recognition that the priority "is ensuring that we have a proper communication strategy with the staff" and that "they feel that their views are being taken on board and are being taken seriously".[26] Early indications of the shape of the new centre, as far as compatible with proper consideration by the Nurse committee, will be an important part of maintaining staff confidence and engagement in the project as a whole. As an example of good practice, we welcome the MRC Chief Executive's reassurance that basic science will not be sacrificed to translational research.[27]


12. The four partners in the proposed new UKCRMI stressed the synergies which will be created by bringing together the NIMR, the Cancer Research UK laboratories, the expertise of UCL in biological and physical sciences and the translational opportunities offered by UCL's four partner hospitals in central London.[28] The Wellcome Trust also underlined the importance of the location next to the British Library.[29] However, we remain concerned that the sponsors and proponents of this scheme have not seriously evaluated other options outside London, particularly as the proposed location has planning considerations which may prove fatal to the project. It remain unclear what impact the UKCMRI will have on fundamental and transitional research in other centres of excellence.

13. We can see the immense benefits that should result from the realisation of this exciting vision. Given the time and goodwill that has been wasted on previous projects to renew the NIMR, it is vital that the UKCMRI is a vision which delivers the first class science and facilities promised and that the project is implemented on time and to budget. We expect to receive quarterly updates, beginning in March 2008, on the development of the project with particular reference to the concerns highlighted above from the MRC and DIUS and would much welcome similar briefings from the other partners. We should very much like to see the project succeed. We believe that a centre of such ambition would place the UK firmly at the forefront of world-class medical research, with substantial benefits for the public as well as for British science.

1 Back

2   Ev 15 Back

3   See, for example, Fourth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2004-05, The Medical Research Council's Review of the Future of the National Institute for Medical Research, HC 6-I, and Fourth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2006-07, Research Council Institutes, HC 68-I.  Back

4   Fourth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2006-07, Research Council Institutes, para 119  Back

5   Q 78, 75 Back

6   Q 78 Back

7   Ev 15 Back

8   Ibid Back

9   Ev 15; Fourth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2006-07, Research Council Institutes, para 119  Back

10   Q 79 Back

11   MRC told us that "As part of the CSR07 settlement, there is a cap on the gross income from the Commercial Fund in each of the three years - £49.2m in 2007/08 rising to £53m by 2010/11. Below the cap, MRC can retain 100%, but any excess has to be surrendered to the Treasury. The exact amounts to be handed over to the Treasury will thus depend on the levels of income achieved during the next three years." (Email to the Clerk of the Committee, 14 January 2008) Back

12   Ev 15 Back

13   Q 85 Back

14   Ev 15 Back

15   Q 72 Back

16   Q 22 Back

17   Qq 69-71, 63 Back

18   Q 26 Back

19   Q 27 Back

20   Q 54 Back

21   Ibid Back

22   Q 25 Back

23   Q 28 Back

24   Q 46 Back

25   Q 98 Back

26   Q 100 Back

27   Q 49. Translational research involves using scientific discoveries to develop practical applications. Back

28   Qq 4-6 Back

29   Q 4 Back

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Prepared 23 January 2008