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UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Written evidence submitted by
Professor Guy Dodson, FRS, FMS, ForMemINSA (UKCMRI 16)

1. My Background.

I have been working in the bio-medical field since the 1960s, first at the Universities of Oxford and York and then NIMR.

In 1993 I went to NIMR to a position joint with the University of York, and established the Protein Structure Division. My experience here opened up to me the critical importance of institutes like the NIMR for effective bio-medical research.

2. My concerns

In this submission I will concentrate on the NIMR perspective in the arrangements associated with UKCMRI

2.1 The dissolution of the NIMR.

The plans for the UKCMRI mean the dissolution of the NIMR. However the Select Committee in its earlier deliberations on the future of the NIMR has always insisted that the research capacities of the NIMR (and the LRI) should be enhanced by the future arrangements at the UKCMRI. I see this as a fundamental commitment of the MRC.

I see some specific difficulties in achieving the enhancement in the research capacity at UKCMRI. These are addressed in the sections below.

2.2 Finance.

All the major issues raised by the Committee come down to the availability of funds. It should be noted that in the past the Select Committee has had reason to be critical about the financial management of the various MRC plans for moving NIMR to central London.

In the Terms of Reference the Select Committee asks whether the finance is robust and justified.

I take ‘robust’ to mean that the funds are securely available and that they are fully adequate for the construction of the laboratories to the highest scientific and technical standards. I am concerned that £600million, the stated available funds for the building, will turn out simply not be sufficient. Secondly, detail is needed about the £100million per year for supporting the planned research level and for running and maintaining the building.

2.3 The building and the housing of research equipment.

2.3.1 Structural Biology laboratories.

I fear that the £600million funding will not be sufficient to meet the uncertainties in building and equipping the laboratories. For example the UKCMRI will contain such equipment as electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy and x-ray and NMR devices. For their effective operation the electromagnetic fields and vibrations generated by the nearby underground must be controlled to very low levels indeed. The engineering to solve these problems cannot afford to fail but the problems and expense here are hard, probably impossible, to predict. Failure to create a superb experimental environment for structural research would undermine the raison d’etre for moving. There is a need to see bulletproof engineering and financial arrangements in this area.

2.3.2 Category 3+ laboratory.

The funds needed to ensure the proper safety and advanced technical levels for the Category 3+ laboratory are very considerable and have unpredictable aspects; it is vital that the costs are identified as far as possible, but most important they need to be robustly funded for contingencies. With influenza and other fearfully problematic infections such as HIV and drug resistant TB now real threats, the Category 3+ laboratory is a critical and strategic element for the bio-medical research of the UKCMRI. Failure to fund the category 3+ laboratory on site would profoundly weaken the UKCMRI’s credibility in translational science and would undermine the scope of the UKCMRI concept. It would lead to the untenable and embarrassing situation where the facilities at UKCMRI were less fit for purpose than those currently available at NIMR.

2.4 Running and maintenance costs of the UKCMRI.

According to the information available there will be £100million per year running costs to cover salaries, consumables, equipment purchase and maintenance. At present the NIMR gets about £40million a year for its running costs from the MRC. There is an increased salary cost in doing research in central London compared to outer London/Mill Hill; most estimates put the increase in total running costs (including salary) in central London at not less than 25%. Thus the Committee needs to investigate the MRC strategy on NIMR/UKCMRI salary and running costs and establish what its expenditure plans are and how these affect MRC-staff.

Obviously the MRC element of funding the UKCMRI will be critically important to the institute’s success and future development; this information is crucial in assessing UKCMRI viability. One should note that a running budget for the NIMR/MRC component limited to the present amount of funding would lead to fewer staff at the UKCMRI with a consequent reduction in the overall scientific output - not the expressed intention!

2.5 MRC policies for intra-mural research.

In the context of the NIMR/UKCMRI issue it is clearly important to know what the MRC’s longer term policies/intentions are for intra-mural (institute) funding. In particular the Committee might explore the MRC’s long term commitment to direct funding at UKCMRI; ie. is this commitment limited to 10 years or will it continue indefinitely.

If there is an intention to reduce intra-mural institute research I would be both disappointed and surprised; there is powerful evidence that bio-medical research gets important benefits from institute-based research. My own experience of institutes and universities supports this view.

2.6 The transition from NIMR to UKCMRI.

2.6.1 Research staff appointments at NIMR.

The career structure at UKCMRI is, I understand, not yet decided. It would be valuable to know what plans are under discussion, and what level of consultation there is, or will be, on this issue.

In the NIMR tenured research staff constitute about 10% of the institute’s complement. This seems to me to be a very successful model that balances security and commitment.

2.6.2 The funding mechanisms for research in the UKCMRI.

The merging of the institutes will presumably be accompanied by new financial arrangements involving CRUK and the Wellcome Trust (charity funds), MRC funds and some University College funds. It is a worry that the funding complexity will interfere with its smooth integration and the seamless distribution of funds and resources needed for effective fast-footed research. I am not aware of any decisions on this fundamental matter but I imagine there has been discussion and it would be helpful to know whether some general principles have been established.

2.7 The future of the NIMR site.

There is also the question as to the future of the NIMR site. As a working institute it has immense value, as land however it is apparently worth only £40million. The site’s 40 acres allows all sorts of possibilities – including superb animal house facilities! I wonder if its laboratories can continue be used or leased, rather than sold.

3. Consultation and transparency

The magnitude of the investment and the acute shortage of research funding means it is inevitable that building and running the UKCMRI will impact on the nation’s research funding.

In this situation the biomedical research community’s view on the UKCMRI is an unknown and it ought not to be. At the time of the open consultations sponsored by the MRC in 2003 and 2004, the great majority of those who responded were against NIMR moving; many of those expressed concern at the cost consequences for extramural MRC-funded research. I strongly suspect that those concerns have not gone away.

I consider that transparency in the UKCMRI process is essential and that consultation on the investment is appropriate, helpful and important. This is an exercise that the Select Committee might want to explore.

4. Conclusion.

4.1 Financial pressures.

This enquiry comes at a critical stage in the development of the UKCMRI. The UKCMRI concept is ambitious and comes at a huge price.

The desperate state of the national finances may well be with us for a considerable time, creating a danger that the bio-medical research goals will not be achieved.

I hope the Committee will be able to satisfy itself that the financial arrangements will allow the UKCMRI to be built and maintained to the highest standards. Otherwise a prodigious amount of research-directed monies will be wasted and two outstanding institutes lost.

4.2 Transparency and consultation.

I believe the momentum generated in the creation of UKCMRI has been at the expense of rigorous scientific evaluation and consultation. It would be hugely disappointing if this project failed to live up to expectations because of shortcomings in these fundamental processes.

Professor Guy Dodson, FRS, FMS, ForMemINSA

12 January 2011