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National Institute For Medical Research

Volume 406: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2003

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11 am

I would like to bring to the attention of the Chamber a matter that is of great concern to all of us interested in biomedical research in the United Kingdom: the future of the National Institute for Medical Research. My constituency is home to this world-renowned institute, which is based at Mill Hill in north London. It is run by the Medical Research Council and is the largest of its institutes. The NIMR is a major employer in my constituency, with more than 700 staff, many of whom live in Hendon. I am not a scientist—my highest achievement was grade five in O-level physics many years ago—but I do not need to be one to recognise that the NIMR has a most distinguished scientific history. It has produced no fewer than five Nobel prize winners, and many discoveries of fundamental importance.

Research at the NIMR addresses many key areas of medical research. The institute has an outstanding international reputation, and the quality of its research has been repeatedly recognised, not only by the MRC, but by the scientific community worldwide. NIMR discoveries have been wide-ranging, and include breakthroughs in infectious diseases, genetics and neuroscience. Its scientists have made important discoveries about the atomic structures of biological molecules and about how we develop from embryos to adults.

The size of the NIMR and the range of its research encourage experts from many different disciplines to work together. Its staff include scientists trained in mathematics, physics and chemistry, as well as in biology and medicine. Scientific equipment is very expensive, and at the NIMR, all the experimental facilities are shared, promoting cost-effective and efficient use of those resources. Current research at the institute, led by its distinguished director, Sir John Skehel, is an excellent example of how modern biomedical research is evolving to meet the challenges of 21st-century medical needs.

Internationally, the NIMR's research has an important impact on problems in the developing world. The institute is a key centre for research into major infectious diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. It contributed to the successful international project to crack the malaria genome. The World Health Organisation's influenza centre at the NIMR provides international surveillance for new influenza viruses, enabling us to update our vaccines each year. The influenza virus was, in fact, discovered at Mill Hill, and the NIMR continues to be a world leader in its research on influenza.

The work carried out at the institute has great clinical importance. One example of that is the important link between the NIMR and London's Great Ormond Street hospital. NIMR scientists collaborate with their clinical colleagues to improve the diagnosis and treatment of child heart and digestive diseases, as well as growth and development problems in children. Other programmes at the institute, such as the development of new methods for the early detection of cervical cancers and of other infectious organisms in the community, have broader implications for the NHS.

One of the institute's great strengths is its close professional and geographical connections with the major teaching hospitals in London, which enable collaborative work to be carried out efficiently and cost effectively. Those connections would be put at risk if the NIMR were to move.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is vital for the NIMR to remain at Mill Hill because it is in a purpose-built building and a strategic geographical position? As he said, it is essential that it has access to the great teaching hospitals in London and to the specialist consultants who tend to congregate in the capital.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. That is the point that I am trying to make, and I am pleased that my campaign to preserve the NIMR at Mill Hill has cross-party backing.

I agree with the comments that have just been made. I understand that there was a peer review of the NIMR, which it passed wonderfully well, and that the review concluded that the institute should not be fragmented. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I shall return to that issue later in my remarks.

I believe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you, too, will share the great excitement at the NIMR about the fundamental breakthroughs in nerve repair made by its neuroscientists, which may soon be translated into the first effective treatment for spinal nerve damage. The impact of that British research on the thousands of patients worldwide who suffer crippling spinal injuries is of course potentially life changing.

Those examples illustrate the strength and practical relevance of NIMR research. State-of-the-art facilities, easy interactions between scientists of many disciplines and nationalities, and the enthusiasm to collaborate with clinical colleagues are the key factors in the drive for the success of the institute at Mill Hill. Why, then, is the future of that British success story under threat?

In April, the MRC published a forward investment strategy document for its institutes. That recognised the high quality of NIMR science, but stated that the case for keeping the institute at Mill Hill was "not compelling". The draft proposal was outside the normal five-year peer review, which last assessed the NIMR in 2000, when it received an excellent report.

The document recommended moving the NIMR away from London, to the Addenbrooke's hospital site in Cambridge in 2010. It also proposed downsizing the institute to about half its present number. To achieve that, the MRC would seek additional Government money for a new building in Cambridge, which at today's prices would cost about £80 million. However, the paper made no estimate of the staff costs of a move to Cambridge, nor of the cost of redundancies.

News of that proposed move astonished NIMR staff. There had been no previous consultations with the institute, and no evidence was presented to support such a radical proposal. It came completely out of the blue. The building at Mill Hill has at least 30 years' life left in it, and the 47-acre site is ideal for future expansion. Were the move to go ahead, it would disrupt many of the long-established and highly productive academic and clinical contacts in London to which I have referred. Downsizing on the scale proposed would inevitably reduce the scope of the research that the NIMR could carry out. The suspicion is that the idea is to cash in on a valuable site in north London. I hope that the Minister will immediately dismiss that notion.

The MRC invited comments from NIMR staff and many other stakeholders. The result was strong support for maintaining the institute's present size and location, and there was powerful and widespread criticism of the way in which the MRC had gone about the process. From my discussions with the staff, I know that few are prepared to move. The NIMR is not only a building but a talented work force of scientists and support staff; such a move would not be of the institution itself.

With the announcement of a plan to move to a smaller institute of unknown composition seven years before such a move could occur, the future of all the staff at Mill Hill has been destabilised. It is no surprise that scientists at the NIMR were immediately inundated with job offers, many from the United States. The loss of that pool of UK talent would be extremely damaging to the MRC biomedical science base. The Association of University Teachers has told me of ongoing uncertainty and about the impact on recruitment and retention. MRC management failed properly to consult NIMR staff or to take account of their views before publishing strategies that would directly affect their future.

The PCS pointed out to me that most of its members at the NIMR are women—a point that I raised in my parliamentary question to the Minister for Women last week. Most of them are in clinical or administrative roles, and the least well paid are in the most easily dispensable positions. The union's experience suggests that they will be the first employees to lose their jobs in a relocation, yet the director told me that their skills are a vital part of the NIMR team. Most PCS members are the main earners in their households, so the relocation would have a devastating impact on those constituents, and on the community in Hendon. Similar views were expressed by the AUT. All members have strong local ties to Mill Hill, and relocation to Cambridge would be out of the question.

I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will have read the Science and Technology Committee's critical report on the MRC and the Government's recent response. Those documents raise serious concerns about the MRC's record of communication with its research community. As well as needing to improve financial management and planning, the MRC must mend its ways when dealing with such important issues as the future of its major research institutes, and it must operate in a more open and transparent manner. The MRC has failed to communicate with the NIMR, and it is to be hoped that Professor Colin Blakemore, the MRC's chief executive designate, will pay urgent attention to that.

The MRC's latest proposal for the institute is to set up a new expert taskforce to consider its future direction, but this time with some NIMR representation. I welcome that move, but I ask why yet another committee is needed when the case against the move to Cambridge is so strong. Nevertheless, I hope that the new committee's remit will allow it quickly to secure the NIMR's future as the national centre for biomedical research.

An early decision is essential—a year has been set aside for the committee's work, which is too long if the NIMR is not to suffer a brain drain that will affect science throughout the country. Speed is necessary since the whole affair has led to strained relations between senior and other staff throughout the NIMR and the MRC management, and it has already captured the attention of the media through critical press coverage. That can only be damaging in the longer term, so it is essential that the problem be remedied as soon as possible.

We cannot and must not jeopardise the exciting future of biomedical research that is one of the UK's strongest assets. We have a well-trained, highly skilled and imaginative scientific community, and we are living in a time of major medical advance. In the 21st century, we are already seeing the merging of molecular, biological and clinical sciences. The decoding of the human genome, the unravelling of the structure of key biological molecules and the promises of stem cell technology will revolutionise medicine in the coming century. It is important to ensure that such discoveries are harnessed effectively for society's benefit. The MRC will need to play a crucial role in that by helping the NIMR to stay at its present location.

The research horizon is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and we will inevitably be faced with requests for ever mere investment in the fundamental sciences. We need to maintain Britain's leadership in the crucial field of biomedical science, not only for the future health of our community but because enormous economic benefits will flow for the nation.

If the Government are asked to respond to those challenges for increased investment, they have a right to expect open and effective management of the resources. Managers need to remember, however, that it is the scientists and the support staff who are our most precious resource. It is their talent and dedication that, if properly supported, will lead to new discoveries and, equally important, inspire the next generation of scientists. The MRC has a good record in training young scientists, nowhere better than at the NIMR, with its close contacts with the London academic institutions, principally University college London. The NIMR will have an equally important role in expanding interactions with clinical departments. London offers a uniquely rich mix of clinical research, and the NIMR already has an excellent track record in that field which the proposed move would threaten.

The MRC must play a vital role in securing its share of new investment to capitalise on those opportunities. Its aim should be to encourage and develop the excellent biomedical science that it funds throughout the UK. On its current site in Mill Hill, the NIMR offers exceptional opportunities for inward investment from the MRC, as well as from other academic, industrial and clinical partners. I therefore urge the Minister to encourage the MRC to recognise the value of developing its inward investment at the NIMR, which is uniquely well placed to take advantage of the unparalleled academic and clinical links that London offers, and to end the uncertainty with an early announcement from the taskforce to secure the NIMR's future at its present Mill Hill home and enable it to continue its vital, world-class research without further disruption.

11.13 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on a matter that is of widespread interest and concern. As I am sure he is aware, ministerial responsibility in the Department of Trade and Industry rests with Lord Sainsbury, but I welcome this opportunity to speak in a debate on a topic of such importance for UK medical research. I will contribute on a strictly factual basis. Let me point out that no decision has yet been taken regarding the future of the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research.

This debate is particularly timely in view of the recent report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology on the work of the MRC and the Government's response, which was published last week. The MRC is at present developing a long-term strategy for its major capital investments during the next 10 to 15 years at four sites: Harwell, Mill Hill, Hammersmith and Cambridge. The MRC will continue to invest in other UK sites, but key decisions are required at those four sites in the next few years. The Office of Science and Technology requires that all research councils produce long-term capital investment plans for their institutes for the next spending review, and the outcome of the MRC's investment strategy will feed into that.

It is normal procedure for the MRC to review units and institutes towards the end of the director's term so that it can reconfirm or reshape its remit. That approach is appropriate and ensures that all research investment is refreshed and remains internationally competitive in line with developing needs.

I hear what the Minister says, and the MRC has written to me in those terms. However, is it efficient for units and institutes to be reviewed when the director resigns or retires? Depending on the directorships, that may take place after five, 10 or 15 years. It does not seem to make much sense for a review to take place just because the director is retiring.

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. I am not aware of the organisation's cycle of directorships or what guarantee of regular intervals the process provides, but I admit that it seems an unusual formula for determining when reviews should take place. I am told that there are quinquennial reviews, but I am happy to come back to hon. Members to say whether that is coincidental with or driven by changes of directorship. What I have just read suggests that it is coincidental, but if correction to that is needed, I will provide it.

The NIMR at Mill Hill is included in the review because the term of office of the current director, Sir John Skehel, ends in 2006—that brings us back to the previous point. In addition, several senior scientific staff retire around that time. In October 2002, the MRC announced the establishment of a council subcommittee to develop its forward investment strategy for the four sites and an overarching policy framework for nurturing and sustaining optimal research environments that will inform major investment appraisal in the future. The MRC informed its unit and institute directors and other stakeholders of the terms of reference and membership of the sub-group. The directors at the four sites were consulted during the six months taken to discuss and publish the draft strategy, so they have had the opportunity to comment on the overarching policy framework and submit comments relating to their individual institutes, in person and in writing, in the course of the sub-committee's deliberations.

The draft strategy was released as a consultation document on 4 April 2003, with a deadline for comment of 19 May that was later extended to 26 May. It was made widely available by the MRC to NIMR staff, trade unions, academics and other researchers including the directors of other MRC-funded units, local MPs and other stakeholders. The results of the consultation were discussed by the MRC sub-committee and its council when they met on 29 May. The overall policy framework and the forward strategy for three of the four centres of investment—Hammersmith, Harwell and Cambridge—have been broadly well received. Most of the comment during the consultation had focused on the specific proposals for the NIMR.

In summary, the sub-committee's proposals for the NIMR were, first, that there was likely to be a strong strategic case in the longer term for retaining investment in the areas of science currently based at the NIMR and that a worldwide search should begin in 2004 for a new director to replace Sir John Skehel. Secondly, the sub-committee found that the NIMR at its present location may be too isolated from clinical and other academic units to compete and remain as attractive to scientists in the longer term as it has been in the past. It proposed Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge as having much to offer as a new location for the new NIMR.

The proposal for relocation has provoked extensive criticism, which was reflected today and during the consultation. I am sure that the expert taskforce will consider the matter in great detail. The MRC took seriously the comments that it received and recently announced as a next step that it would now accelerate further development of strong scientific vision for the NIMR by establishing that expert taskforce. The taskforce will consider and consult on a broader set of options for the size and location of the NIMR, including options suggested during the consultation period.

The MRC will announce the membership of the taskforce in the near future. It will include council members, independent scientists from the United Kingdom and abroad, and senior scientists currently working at the NIMR. The establishment of the taskforce emphasizes the MRC's commitment to continued stakeholder consultation and to considering all the options for the future of the NIMR. The taskforce will aim to submit an interim report by the end of the year and a final report by next June.

The NIMR is MRC's oldest and largest research institute. It has an annual budget from the public purse of £27 million a year. The current building is more than 60 years old. It is a matter of record that the NIMR has an illustrious scientific reputation, with alumni now in leadership positions all over the world.

The Minister is right that the building was constructed in the late 1930s, but it turned out to be a perfectly designed building for the NIMR. Its size and the ability to move rooms within its shell are still relevant today. As one who qualified as an architect, I must say that it is one of the most perfect buildings for the uses to which it is put. For that and many other reasons, it would be criminal not to continue with the NIMR at Mill Hill.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well as an architect and as an advocate. My position is based purely on fact. I am happy to make it clear that when I say that the building is 60 years old, I do not say so pejoratively. It is appropriate that the hon. Gentleman has added his own rider to that.

Much of the NIMR's current research portfolio, notably in infectious diseases, immunology and stem-cell biology, is highly relevant to Department of Health priorities and to the MRC's published 10-year vision for medical research. The aim of the MRC's current review is to ensure that the NIMR can flourish and remain competitive as a world-class medical research environment well into the 21st century. Whatever the outcome of the deliberations of the expert taskforce, high-quality medical research will continue to be funded in optimal environments as part of the new NIMR or elsewhere.

The future of the NIMR is an issue for the MRC to resolve. The Haldane principle under which all research councils are managed requires that Governments do not prescribe to individual research councils the detail of how they should distribute resources between competing priorities. That is their responsibility, advised by researchers and research users on the MRC and its boards. It is therefore for the MRC to decide its long-term strategy, including for the future of the NIMR. However, the Office of Science and Technology has been kept closely informed of developments: given the scale of investment in the NIMR, the OST has taken a particular interest in the process being followed by the MRC. The OST is content that due process is being followed and that the scientific community and other stakeholders have had, and will continue to have, the opportunity to consult on and influence the outcome of that strategy development.

In March, the Select Committee on Science and Technology published its report into the work of the MRC. Only last week, the Government published their response. I do not have time to discuss everything that was said. However, I want to make a couple of points that may be relevant to the debate. Most important is the fact that the review of the NIMR and the wider forward investment strategy are not connected to the Select Committee report.

As I said, it is standard practice for the MRC to review units and institutes towards the end of the director's term. The review of MRC-funded units and institutes, whether quinquennial or at the end of a director's term, is important in ensuring that the excellence of the UK science base is maintained and developed, and that developments meet the needs of the nation and make the best use of public funds. It takes many years to bring to fruition developments in medical research that will improve health care and result in other benefits. As the chief source for Government funding of medical research, the MRC has a particular role to play in taking the longer-term view.

In conclusion, the Government accept that decisions about funding and delivering research that will ultimately benefit human health require fine judgement on the part of the MRC council.

I get the impression that my hon. Friend is drawing his remarks to a close, so let me put to him again a point that I made in my speech. Given the value of the site, there is concern that the ulterior motive may be to maximise the proceeds of the sale for other purposes. Will he confirm that the value of the site is not a factor in the deliberations and will not feature in the decision-making process?

I have had absolutely no indication to suggest that the value of the site is a factor in the deliberations. I am happy to seek further information and to write to my hon. Friend to reinforce that point. I certainly do not want to mislead him or the House on the issue. I will write to him about it.

As I said, certain decisions require fine judgment on the part of the MRC. Judgements that are made, for example, as part of the development of the MRC's forward investment strategy rightly attract questions and criticism, and the Government welcome informed debate on such issues.

It is important that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has initiated this debate. The cross-party representations have been interesting and have doubtless reassured him. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) has made an appearance, although I am not sure whether she shares the views that have been expressed. That aside, the debate has given me an opportunity publicly to reassure stakeholders that a decision has not been made about the future of the NIMR. I have no doubt that everyone involved in the process will take note of today's contributions.

Serious consideration has been given to all the comments sent to the MRC during the recent consultation period, and alternative suggestions on the future of the NIMR will be passed to the taskforce. Further comments will be actively sought during the next phase of the consultation, which will be under the auspices of the MRC's expert taskforce.

I hope that that is a reasonable précis of the factual position. This has been a classic Adjournment debate in that it has allowed issues of public importance to be given the airing that they deserve.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.