Examination of Witnesses (Questions 136-167)|
RT HON DAVID WILLETTS MP AND EARL HOWE
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.
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 organisationsthe MRC
joined with Cancer Research UK, University College London and
the Wellcome Trustis a very exciting model for the future.
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.
You have documented the business case inside the BIS or jointly
across Government Departments.
Mr Willetts: Yes.
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.
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.
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.
The local MP, who knows his patch as well as anyone doesas
well as you know your own, of course, as a former Health Minister
as wellat 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.
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
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
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 researchin
other words, bench to bedside-type researchthat 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.
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.
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
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 facilityremember,
there are going to be over 1,000 scientists in thereand
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
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
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
projectyou have probably heard from around the table that
the cost of it is causing some concern to our Committeeis
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
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
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
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 billionthe
ring fenceto 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
For this centre?
Mr Willetts: For
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