UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 136-167)


2 MARCH 2011

Chair: Minister, thank you for joining the Minister of State for Universities and Science for this session. I need, formally, to ask colleagues for declarations of interests at the start of this meeting.

Gavin Barwell: Chairman, I took part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme this year. I was paired with Dr Emily Nurse from University College London, who is the daughter of Sir Paul Nurse, who is the chief executive and director of the UKCMRI.

Q136   Chair: Ministers, you both attended the signing of the Joint Venture Agreement in November of last year. Why has the Government been so visible in its support for the UKCMRI?

Mr Willetts: Because it is perhaps the most significant development in British biomedical science for a generation. I very much hope it is going to be a fantastic facility. As well as that, the model of co-operation behind it, with these four different organisations—the MRC joined with Cancer Research UK, University College London and the Wellcome Trust—is a very exciting model for the future.

Q137   Chair: We can see that. Were you convinced of the business case?

Mr Willetts: The business case has been scrutinised several times by the Office of Government Commerce. We looked at it again with a very beady eye when the new Government came in and the Treasury, rightly, asked us to review all the capital commitments. That was done again over the summer. Every time, it has withstood the most careful scrutiny as a very valuable project.

Q138   Chair: You have documented the business case inside the BIS or jointly across Government Departments.

Mr Willetts: Yes.

Q139   Chair: Is that a hard copy to which we can have access?

Mr Willetts: Yes. If there is more background material, my principle is that the Committees have a right to all this material. The only thing I would say is that in some areas, if you are specifically thinking of the MRC business case, there is some commercially sensitive information. Perhaps it might help the Committee if I indicated the areas where there would be commercial sensitivities.

One of the issues is that, in order to run the project cost-effectively, we have split up the contracting process into two stages. There is a first round of clearing the site and the basement. There is a second round of erecting the building. The business case includes assumptions about how much we might have to pay in the contract for the second round, which is still being negotiated, so you do not want to reveal your hand. There were also some internal assessments about the quality of individual bids from companies. Apart from some of those commercially sensitive features, as I hope the Committee will understand, we are very happy to share with the Committee versions of the business case.

Q140   Chair: We understand commercial sensitivities and anything you provide will be treated appropriately. Did the Government attach any conditions to the approval?

Mr Willetts: One of the key conditions was that all processes associated with the planning permission are completed. That is the most crucial feature. That seems to be proceeding very well.

Q141   Chair: Has the provision of social housing on the disused National Temperance Hospital site been sacrificed in order to get a better land receipt?

Mr Willetts: I know there are some delicacies about the exact location of the site. I think that the partners all took the view that the development was in the right place. The actual disposal of the National Temperance Hospital site is a matter for the MRC and it is a commercial decision for the MRC as to whom the land is sold to. Of course, the use of the land for social housing or whatever purpose is a matter for local authorities through their planning powers.

Q142   Chair: The local MP, who knows his patch as well as anyone does—as well as you know your own, of course, as a former Health Minister as well—at an early stage expressed doubts over the suitability of the Temperance site. He was of the clear opinion that commitments were given that, "We will pull off that site and go to the St Pancras site in exchange for the development of better social housing on the Temperance site."

Mr Willetts: This happened under the previous Government. I am not aware of what undertakings were given, if any. My advice is that it is now a matter for the MRC to make their disposal. The proceeds will go to the UKCMRI project, and any use of the site is subject to the usual local authority planning procedures.

Q143   Chair: But you would expect them to maintain any commitments given to the local community?

Mr Willetts: I don't know what commitments were made and in what terms. I am afraid that that is a matter that you would have to ask specifically the MRC when they bought it.

Q144   Graham Stringer: This project is on a site next to a project that became a symbol for overrunning on time and budget. How confident are you that this project will be brought in on time and on budget?

Mr Willetts: We are very aware of the history of cost overruns; you are quite right, Mr Stringer. All I can say is that the Office of Government Commerce has reviewed it on several occasions. The most recent reviews were in July 2010 and again in January 2011. It was given a Delivery Confidence Assessment of Amber-Green. That is regarded as a good ranking, given that it is still more than four years from the expected delivery date. We will have an observer from BIS on the UKCMRI construction project board. As I mentioned to the Committee a moment ago, the two-stage approach to procurement is also supposed to make it particularly cost-effective. We have all agreed, as the four partners, an overall cost envelope. So we are absolutely doing our best to make sure that we eliminate cost overruns.

Q145   Graham Stringer: Two questions follow from that. Can you assure this Committee that, if there are overruns, because stuff happens on these large projects, that the taxpayer will not pick up that tab? Can you also expand on the role of the BIS observer?

Mr Willetts: On the action we would take, all four partners have agreed a very clear financial envelope and I am assured that this two-stage contracting process helps deliver costing within that envelope. We have set a very clear limit on our expenditure here.

The role of the observer, and it is an observer on the construction project board, is to ensure that we do stay in close touch with the project and get the information that we need on the progress of the project. It means that there is an opportunity for us to keep in very close touch with the partners, but our observer does not have formal voting rights because, although Earl Howe and I were at the ceremony you referred to earlier, we are not one of the four partners. It would not be right for the observer to have voting rights, but our observer will be able to keep us in very close touch with what is going on.

Q146   Graham Stringer: I do not think you said in that answer that the taxpayer won't pick up the cost if it goes over budget. Will they or won't they?

Mr Willetts: We have set a financial envelope along with the other partners for the total cost of this project. It must not exceed that envelope, there is no funding from the taxpayer to pay for anything in excess of that envelope, and it is very important that this project does not overrun.

Q147   Graham Stringer: That is a lot clearer but things do go wrong. Earl Howe, are you happy that the £220 million found for this scheme came from the health budgets in totality and not from other places?

Earl Howe: We are very comfortable with this level of contribution for a number of reasons. First of all, in principle, we do see this project as very much in the interests of the NHS and patients over the longer term. There are a number of particular factors that led us to that conclusion, not the least of which is the emphasis that the centre will place on translational research—in other words, bench to bedside-type research—that is clearly in the direct interests of patients.

Q148   Graham Stringer: How will the Government be represented on the final board, when the project is up and running?

Mr Willetts: That will be through the MRC, as I said. We are putting in through the MRC slightly under one half of the total cost. The MRC is the crucial agent for the Government in this project.

Q149   Stephen Metcalfe: Mr Willetts, you touched upon this matter earlier and said that the location of the centre might be an issue. I also have a big issue with the overall cost of the bricks and mortar side of this project, which is the best part, including fees and land, etcetera, of two thirds of £1 billion. I see the location and the cost as inextricably linked. Are you absolutely satisfied that the site at St Pancras is the best location for a project of this magnitude and importance? Have you explored other sites yourself? Have you visited, for example, the site at Mill Hill, which is considerably bigger and has been there for a long time? Have you judged whether that is fit for purpose or fit for expansion?

Mr Willetts: I personally have not visited Mill Hill. All I can tell you is the very strong view of all four partners. There is a long history, as you have already touched on it, going way back before this Government, of debating the location. Obviously, as an incoming Minister one does ask the partners about being in central London, because I absolutely understand your line of questioning, Mr Metcalfe. They do all say that it is the best site for collaborative research. They like the fact that it is so close to leading hospitals, such as Great Ormond Street and University College Hospital. They like the very strong transport links. They have been emphatic in saying that that location is very important in terms of attracting international talent. Remember, we are hoping that researchers from around the world will want to come and work there.

Q150   Chair: That may be the view of the great and the good that you have consulted.

Mr Willetts: I count you as a member of the great and the good, Chairman.

Q151   Chair: Earl Howe, have you discussed this directly with employees, the key researchers, the people at Mill Hill?

Earl Howe: Not the people at Mill Hill because that is not under my jurisdiction. It is the responsibility of the MRC. But I have discussed the location in broad terms in the sense that the location is one that is ideal for several of our major London teaching hospitals. What we will see happening is a two-way engagement between UKCMRI and centres such as University College Hospital, King's and Imperial, the major London centres for research, with a two-way flow of ideas, with clinicians on the ground identifying clinical problems which need to be solved, scientists in the centre picking up those pointers and we hope a much quicker flow of ideas coming through to benefit patients. The location of the building, I am clear, is of major advantage in that sense.

Q152   Stephen Metcalfe: Do you think it is worth paying potentially considerably more than you might be able to construct a similar centre for, with all the benefits that you are describing, other than it being nine miles from St Pancras out at Mill Hill? You talk about all this collaborative working. We recently visited CERN, where there are 12,000 scientists working over a site that is quite large. There is a 27 km tunnel. That is where the world wide web was invented so that scientists could collaborate over distance. I want to make sure that the benefits in a project that was devised and conceived in better financial times is still the best use of money from all the partners now, and that there is not a better way of using that money, in the potential saving on the construction costs, in providing better research and better outcomes for, after all, patients.

Earl Howe: I need to be clear that the Department of Health has not been in the lead on the decision of the location. We were asked to make a contribution to the capital costs once the decision on the location had been made. The question for us was, was this good value for the Department of Health as well as for the taxpayer? We were clear that it was an investment with which we were comfortable and that this was a worthwhile cross-Government venture.

Q153   Stephen Metcalfe: Do you know what the future of Mill Hill will be once the funding that is supporting the research moves to the UKCMRI?

Mr Willetts: I do not know. I believe that the UKCMRI essentially replaces the facilities at Mill Hill. The activity is going to shift UKCMRI in its new location, so I think Mill Hill will close.

Q154   Stephen Metcalfe: That begs another question about the location at St Pancras. It is a relatively small site of 3.6 acres. We have heard from previous witnesses that there is no room for expansion and that the site is being fully utilised with the centre as it is currently proposed. Do you think it is a good idea that there is no scope for change, development or expansion on that site?

Mr Willetts: We are advised that it is going to be a very large facility—remember, there are going to be over 1,000 scientists in there—and that enables you to get to the critical mass. That enables you to have a place that is big enough for a range of different disciplines and a range of different medical research challenges to be addressed. So that is a very legitimate question, but we have been assured that it is big enough for all the range of activities that are intended for it.

Q155   Stephen Metcalfe: My final question on this is that we talked earlier about the golden triangle, about concentrating research into a very tight and small area. Do you think that by locating the centre in the centre of London that we are compacting that? We are compounding that problem and focusing, again, a lot of our research into the golden triangle. Do you see that as a problem for the wider UK research base?

Mr Willetts: The fact is that there is a concentration of leading hospitals and academic institutions, such as University College, located nearby, which is one of our globally ranked universities. That does mean that London and the golden triangle to which you referred does tend to attract research. As I said earlier to the Committee, even if some of that most upstream medical research happens in a small number of clusters, it does not follow that there are not other stages in the life sciences process that will be happening all across the country. I believe we can achieve that, including the location of CROs.

Earl Howe: I think it is worth adding that Sir Paul Nurse envisages that the career structure available in UKCMRI will be such that we will have brilliant young researchers training and becoming established at the centre and then dispersing around the country, taking their expertise with them.

Chair: We want to push you on that a little more.

Q156   Stephen Mosley: Before I do that, Sir Paul Nurse has recently made some comments that were slightly negative towards the Government's science policy. In an interview with Research Fortnight he gave an indication that he had some concern that Government cuts may lead to a reduction in the research infrastructure. With the Government spending so much money and the MRC putting so much money into this particular project—you have probably heard from around the table that the cost of it is causing some concern to our Committee—is there a risk that it might lead to reductions in other research budgets or affect other projects in the UK?

Mr Willetts: As I have said, we have an MRC budget that has ended up, not least because of its patent income, protected in real terms, and this Department of Health contribution is incredibly welcome. Based on that, the value to the NHS of this further enables us to increase our activity.

I read what Sir Paul Nurse said and, of course, I have good and close contact with Sir Paul. I would cite a letter of 22 October from scientists: "We warmly welcome the settlement in the Comprehensive Spending Review…This is a strong signal from government and will boost the confidence of researchers and investors alike." One of the signatories was a certain Sir Paul Nurse.

Q157   Stephen Mosley: If you also go down the food chain in the scientific community, we were recently in CERN and we were lucky enough while we were there to have an hour with a group of young British scientists working at CERN. They perceived that there was a lack of job security in British science, that there were limited career opportunities and that a lack of investment may lead to a brain drain, effectively, from the UK in the future.

Are you aware of this problem among the wider scientific community and do you think that by focusing on big, large-scale projects like the UKCMRI we might end up with nice glitzy buildings but without the British scientists to use them and do work in them?

Mr Willetts: First of all, and the Committee has pressed me on this before, the capital spend is outside the ring fence. We are using the £4.6 billion—the ring fence—to sustain research activity, post-doctoral research and research grants. Sometimes I get the opposite line of criticism, "You're putting all this money into continuing current activity, but you are not putting enough into the new capital equipment that the researchers need."

There is a challenge in the career structure here. I am reminded a bit of the problems that the NHS got into a few years ago with recruiting large numbers of medical students and then realising there were not going to be enough consultancy places for them all. There is a question about the structure of post-graduate scientific research and what the legitimate career ambitions of people who are researching at that level are relative to the number of professorial posts available. I do say to the community that taking a few steps back and looking at the career structures for young and mid-career researchers and scientists would be something that does bear investigation. It is an issue.

Q158   Stephen Mosley: You say there is a question and it does bear investigation. Are you going to be doing that?

Mr Willetts: We are trying to ensure a proper balance of the spending so that, for example, we can continue to support post-doctoral researchers. One reason why we have slightly increased the funding for the Royal Society and the British Academy is that they have good long-term contracts for blue-skies research activity, which they are very good at identifying.[1] Yes, we are trying to make a practical contribution to tackling the problem as well.

Q159   Stephen Mosley: Earl Howe, you did mention Sir Paul Nurse's view about the funding of brilliant science. He said that science funding should become more elitist. Does the Government share the view that science funding should become more elitist? You did mention the model that he is trying to achieve by bringing a small number of people in initially, creating a brilliant organisation, creating brilliant scientists and allowing them to permeate among other organisations within the UK and bringing new people into the UKCMRI to try and ensure that this brilliance does get absorbed across the entire UK life sciences sector. Do you share that model? Do you agree with that?

Earl Howe: The second part of your question is perhaps of more relevance to me than the first part. If we look at the skills agenda, I look to my colleague to my right. What we were mindful of in making the contribution to this project, among many other factors, was that the benefits of UKCMRI would indirectly be dispersed more widely in the NHS over time by virtue of researchers migrating from London to other centres around the country. That is very often a typical pattern that we have seen in the past. Here we will have a centre of excellence in London providing the engine, the motor, for that process. It is an observed fact around the NHS that, where you have a hospital trust that has exciting work going on at the cutting edge of treatment, you not only attract the best clinicians but the standard of care goes up as well. So there is a virtuous circle in that sense.

Q160   Stephen Mosley: What would you say on the elitist point?

Earl Howe: I fear I have no view of that. I do not know whether Mr Willetts has.

Mr Willetts: The pressure is, if anything, to concentrate research funding on the universities that do best in the research assessment exercise and get the highest star rankings. Already it is pretty highly concentrated, but, if anything, the pressures are to concentrate further.

Q161   Stephen Mosley: Do you have any plans or proposals to roll out this model in other sectors of scientific research?

Mr Willetts: Oddly enough, you could regard this as a kind of technology innovation centre. It is on a massive scale, way beyond the budget that we have for technology innovation centres. But it is a very good example of some of the principles behind the TICs that this Committee has been investigating in that it is a shared facility, a mix of public and private funding, and we hope that a variety of people will come in and wish to use it. Of course, there is not a direct business involvement because it is a bit more upstream.

I would be very keen for the Government, through its research councils, to have more of these kinds of partnerships. Wellcome is an excellent partner in the Diamond Synchrotron at Harwell where they make a contribution and we make the bulk of the contribution. If there are other places where we can work with charities such as the Wellcome Foundation and specific academic bodies, yes, I would be up for that.

Q162   Gavin Barwell: Chairman, Earl Howe referred earlier on to translational research. The Cooksey Review highlighted two gaps in translation. One was translating basic research into the development of new products and treatments, which I guess primarily is an issue that would lie in Mr Willetts's sphere of responsibility, and the second was then translating those treatments into clinical practice, essentially, which clearly falls within Earl Howe's area of responsibility. Can I ask you both how you think the creation of this centre will close those two gaps?

Mr Willetts: This is where the location issue comes in. Some of its researchers will be clinicians. They will be clinically trained. They will be people who have had practical hands- on medical responsibility. It will have direct links with local clinical centres, such as University College Hospital and Great Ormond Street. We see it as having that direct interaction, as I said, so overcoming some of the boundaries between the academic research in teaching hospitals that go right back to the post-war decisions.

Earl Howe: The links that are planned between UKCMRI and local clinical centres of excellence will, as I indicated earlier, help to define what the priorities are in the research that is undertaken and also provide a direct route through which clinical applications can be progressed.

If you look at the scientific vision document, it describes some of the diseases that they are going to be investigating in some detail. Cancer will be a strong focus, as you might expect; so, too, will circulatory conditions, heart disease and stroke, the immune system, the nervous system and so on. These are areas of major clinical importance and ones in which our major London teaching hospitals excel.

Q163   Gavin Barwell: Earl Howe, clearly there is a link between the centre and University College Hospital in particular, but how will we ensure that those treatments are rolled out right across the NHS? What is the mechanism for ensuring that the whole of the NHS benefits from this centre?

Earl Howe: Now we are into an issue that occupies a lot of time in the Department of Health, which is the innovation agenda. We see, don't we, good ideas emerging around the NHS? We also have mechanisms in the Department of Health for promoting innovation in the health service, but the challenge is, clearly, to diffuse good ideas more widely. There are a number of ways in which we are trying to do that. There are financial incentives, competitions and the Innovation EXPO that is at the ExCel next week. These are ways in which we are trying to disseminate best practice. It is a constant theme of the Department's work.

In the end, it has much to do with clinical leadership and a lot to do with having visionary managers around the NHS who regard innovation as important. As has been said, this is a large investment, but I am clear that this is the very time, at a time of financial constraint, when we should not take our foot off the innovation pedal because finding new and better ways of doing things is, in the end, how we are going to have an affordable health service.

Q164   Gavin Barwell: You have both acknowledged that it is a significant investment, you both believe it is the right investment and you are confident that it will be delivered on time. What plans have you already put in place to measure in a few years' time whether it does succeed in dealing with these two translational gaps, essentially? Is some mechanism already in place to measure the success?

Earl Howe: It is too soon to say before the building has been constructed exactly how either of our two Departments will monitor progress in the sense that you have indicated. It is important to emphasise that neither of our two Departments will directly have a seat on the board or be involved in the management, as I think is appropriate. One of the strengths of research in this country has been its arm's length relationship with Government.

Q165   Chair: But you do recognise that there is a potential problem in that here we have a very concentrated centre of excellence, a project that is driven from within the heart of Government, and another one that is trying to create a more bottom-up reform. Is there not a risk of a gap in the middle? How are we going to ensure that the flow that Sir Paul Nurse wants to see, quite legitimately, actually occurs, reaching into hospitals in all of our constituencies, so that right across the country we get access to best practice?

Earl Howe: This is a challenge now, as I have indicated. It is not just a challenge for the future. In the end, it is a combination of the things that I have mentioned. It is having visionary clinical leaders on the ground around the health service and it is about having a Department with the means at its disposal to encourage, promote and publicise innovation, but also having mechanisms within the health service to spread that vision. It is the last of those three things that is the difficult bit of the equation.

The last Government did a great deal to get this agenda going under Ara Darzi. We have tried to continue many of the initiatives that he started. There are, for example, strategy groups that both Mr Willetts and I sit on, that industry representatives and stakeholders sit on, so that we are aware of their problems as regards diffusing innovation throughout the system and vice versa. Dialogue with the industry in all its forms is very important. Dialogue with the medical profession is very important. We are extremely alive to this issue and it is one that we will continue to consider.

Q166   Chair: There is a much broader issue here that we may come back to in future inquiries. Obviously, it is relevant to this particular, much narrower inquiry. We have covered a huge amount of ground this morning. One of the issues that you mentioned twice, Mr Willetts, was the technology innovation centres, and we are hoping to get a response from you on our report in the not-too-distant future. One of the things we mentioned in that was a recommendation for a more human name. I hope, Earl Howe, that somebody can think of a more human name than UKCMRI, which is a dreadful acronym.

Earl Howe: There is something in the wind.

Mr Willetts: I can tell the Committee that a brilliant name has been put forward. An announcement of that will be made in a few weeks, that I hope the Committee will appreciate as being absolutely the right name for this centre, and it will be a human name.

Q167   Chair: For this centre?

Mr Willetts: For the UKCMRI?

Chair: Yes.

Mr Willetts: I know your thoughts on the TICs are very interesting as well.

Chair: That was because we took a view that spread right across the breadth of science, not just in the narrow confines of the important parts of particle physics and so on.

Thank you very much for your time, Earl Howe and David Willetts, especially for the length of time you have been here this morning. Obviously, there are a number of other key areas on which we want to keep in touch with your Department. Thank you for your attendance.

1   Note by witness: Funding for the British Academy was slightly increased: the Royal Society's settlement was similar to that of most Research Councils.  Back

previous page contents

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 25 May 2011