The United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Report and commentary on the STC hearing of 16 February 2011 | February 18, 2011

HoC Science and Technology Committee (STC)

 Thatcher Room

Committee members present:  Andrew Miller (Chair)  Labour , Gavin Barwell  Conservative, Stephen Metcalfe  Conservative , David Morris  Conservative, Stephen Mosley  Conservative, Pamela Nash  Labour , Graham Stringer  Labour, Roger Williams, Liberal Democrats 

Evidence given  on Wednesday 16 February between  at 9.18am and 10.40 am

Evidence taken from the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCRMI)

UKCRMI Witnesses

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive and Director

Sir David Cooksey GBE, Chairman

John Cooper, Chief Operating Officer, UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Replay the evidence at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=7703&player=silverlight

Declaration of interest

A committee member, Gavin Barwell,  made a declaration of interest , namely,  he is paired with Sir Paul Nurse’s daughter Emily in the MP pairing scheme of the Royal Society. Details of the scheme can be found at http://royalsociety.org/General_WF.aspx?pageid=7277&terms=MP+pairing+scheme&fragment=&SearchType=&terms=MP pairing scheme

Dearie  me, what a coincidence that one of the committee should be paired with the daughter of the head of UKCRMI.

The general conduct of the evidence

There was a good deal of duplication of the material which was covered in the evidence given on 9 February.  I have concentrated only on new material both where a subject was not raised previously or where a subject was raised but something new was added .

Paul Nurse did most of the talking for UKCRMI, probably as much as 75%.

 The evidence given  fell primarily under the heading of waffle.  The air was filled with the type of meaningless beloved of the Great and the Good:  “most exciting biomedical initiative for a generation”   in Britain; the rest of the world look on the project with Envy”; “rhe project is the envy of the world”; “attracting the best from around the world””, “creating an area of brilliance” and “Brilliant people” . You get the idea.

The vast majority of the waffle – perhaps 85% –   was delivered by Paul Nurse in what I will admit was an engaging manner, but it was still waffle.

The MRC Business Case

At the previous meeting, the head of MRC John Savill, had revealed that the business case had been accepted by BUS but that as yet he had no details of any conditions the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) might have imposed  along with the acceptance. Very convenient because it meant that he could not be questioned about the detail of the acceptance.  As of yesterday, the committee has not received a copy of the business plan.

Under questioning, Cooper conceded that there were conditions imposed by BIS when they accepted  the MRC’s business case.  However, he  refused to say what  they were because he was unsure of the position with regard to business confidentiality.  He assured the committee “That none of those conditions have given me cause for concern”.   Incredibly, the  STC failed to press him on this matter, they did not  insist on the forwarding of BIS  approval letter  to the STC .  The first rule of investigation is simple: if someone does not want you to see a something, that is something you need to see.  

This episode was the most significant  thing to come out of the hearing.  There is something there which is either more significant than Cooper admits and/or strikes at the general raison d’etre for the siting of the laboratory in central London.

The position of Paul Nurse

There was concern expressed by the STC that  Nurse might not be able to give his all to  the job of UKCRMI CEO  because of his other commitments.  Nurse said his position was as follows:

–          He works “quite hard” (RH comment  I kid you not, he actually said this).

–          He has resigned from his post at Rockefeller University,  although he is continuing  to act for them until his successor takes over in March 2011. 

–          His position at the Royal Society is part-time.

–          He  remains a functioning research scientist and is presently arranging for his (personal) Rockefeller laboratory to be transferred to England.

–          Until the  laboratory was built, his role with UKCRMI would not involve operational decisions, merely planning ones.

–          He had great confidence in the rest of his management team to support him.

In the light of these considerations, Nurse said he was certain he could fulfil the role of CEO.  Unfortunately, the STC left it at that.  I think anyone might have doubts about Nurse’s  ability to give  enough time and concentration to managing a highly complex scheme whilst doing his own research and heading the Royal Society, a post which involves a fair bit of media work, speaking and general representation of the society, some of it abroad.  I suspect that John Cooper will be the  man really running the show.

Nurse has a contract for 5 years (the delivery of the facility) renewable at the discretion of the UKCRMI board for another 5 years (operational time).

Once the new laboratory  is up and running,  Nurse said he would be charge of allocating resources. 

At various points in the evidence  Nurse accepted “ultimate responsibility”  for the success of the project, both in its building and operational  outcomes when built, and for security.

The origins of the UKCRMI scheme

Nurse claimed he was its progenitor, having hatched the idea in 1999 when he was working for CR-UK. Nothing came of the idea at that time and it was not until 2004 that he became involved again, this time with the Medical Research Council.

One point of interest did come out of this passage of the evidence. Nurse said that in 1999 he was thinking in terms of siting the joint-venture in the Millennium Dome.  This undermines further the claim that the  site has to be in central London to get the benefit of the “cluster effect”.

Cost of the building

The STC again expressed concern over the cost of the building. UKCRMI countered this pointing out the buildings’ likely longevity (Nurse said 60-80 years, Cooper 50-60 years). Nurse also claimed that its initial  cost (£650 million for the building and £65 million for the equipment) represented only 3 or 4 years operational costs.  This did not quite square with the £100 million  base running costs pa plus perhaps £15 million for other sources which Nurse anticipated.

Cooper attempted to make the figures square by saying the £650 million covered the purchase of the land (£85 million), work in kind undertaken by Cancer-UK  and professional fees.  He put the cost of building at £400m+  not £650 million. This was something of damp squib because however the money was spent, it was still spent.

Cooper put the lifespan of the laboratory at 50-60 years; Paul Nurse thought it would be 60-80 years.

Delivery on time and within cost

Cooper said that a contingency for inflation was built into the costing. This happened “a year to 18 months ago.” He was not vulgar enough to say what this figure was,  but assured the committee it was in line with the way inflation had played out since the contingency was set.  No one on the committee pressed him further.

After a good deal of unseemly preening by both Cooper and Nurse about how they had previously run such projects successfully,  Nurse admitted there was no plan B if the project ran into severe cost or time overruns.

Cooper had a nasty moment when he admitted that a project he had run had experience problems, but when questioned about this he said it had not been a project he had been involved with from the outset.

The laboratories at Mill Hill (NIMR) and Lincoln’s Inn (CR-UK)

Nurse claimed that Mill Hill  (built in the 1930s) was on the verge of   obsolescence and Lincoln’s Inn (built in the 1950s) would be within the next ten years.  He attributed this to their age.  The committee failed to ask for details of why they were obsolescent or why they could not be renovated.

The problem for UKCRMI  with this stance  is that even if what Nurse says is true, a new laboratory could be built on the Mill Hill site to house both existing laboratories (plus the Clare Laboratory – see below).  It is no argument for moving the laboratories to Brill Place.

The size of the proposed laboratory

Cooper said it would measure 90,000 square metres externally and 83,000 metres internally.  

Why must the laboratory be in central London?

An already  weak case was weakened  further by Nurse’s comment that he had thought of putting such a research laboratory in the Millennium Dome and the fact (not mentioned in last week’s evidence) that Cancer-UK laboratory at Clare Hall near  Potters Bar (Hertfordshire) was part of UKCRMI and would remain in operation to house some of the animals used by UKCRMI.  (Potters Bar is around 9 miles from Kings Cross; Mill Hill around 6 and a half miles. )

Nurse completely  let the cat out of the bag  when he said that young scientists would not come to the UKCRMI laboratory unless it was in central London because quote “They like central London. That’s the way it is. They don’t want to live in Mill Hill”.

This raises a very interesting point. Nurse said that when the Laboratory was up and running there would be 250 postgraduate scientists and 500 post-doctoral  scientists working there which would constitute the large  majority of the scientific staff.  Their ages would be between 21-34.  Scientists  are not generally well paid and young scientists are almost invariably on mediocre salaries. How on earth would these people be able to afford to live in central London? Shock horror! They will probably have to live in places such as Mill Hill.

Nurse also improbably claimed that being at Mill Hill added an hour or more to journeys  to other parts of the UK compared with a site in central London. The train journey between Mill Hill and St Pancras takes 17 minutes. 

Nurse’s final throw of the dice on this subject was to claim that using a site such as Mill Hill made it impossible to get the interaction between people from different disciplines. This will come as a shock to those working at Mill Hill because the NIMR website lists this research:

Research groups by theme

Biophysics

Biochemistry

Cancer

Chromosome biology

Cell biology

Evolutionary biology

Developmental biology

Immunity

Genetics and genomics

Neurosciences

Mathematical biology

Physiology and metabolism

Systems biology

Stem cell biology

Structural biology

Infectious disease

http://www.nimr.mrc.ac.uk/

Several members of the committee asked why the site had to be in London  at all and suggested that it could have been placed in places such as Birmingham or Manchester.  Nurse  said it was impracticable because it would be seen as provincial and consequently would not be a magnet for all the “best and the brightest” he was so keen to attract.

 Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Labour) suggested that the plan to put the laboratory in central London seemed to be a case of “the great and the good” deciding that this is where it should be and then post hoc framing the  arguments for its siting there rather than elsewhere.  Nurse vehemently denied this.  

Biohazard Levels

Nurse stated categorically that no Level 4 work would be done  on the site because any  level 4 work  would be undertaken elsewhere. This did not clarify the position on the mysterious 3+ biosecurity level which appears to have no formal sanction. If all the work is to be at Level 3, why the need for the 3+ security level?  Unfortunately, the STC made no attempt to ferret out what level 3+ means.

Security

Nurse said that UKCRMI intended to recruit the “brightest and best” from around the world. This has security implications because anyone born abroad or has lived abroad for a long time cannot in the nature of things be meaningfully security vetted.  The fact that these will be scientists does not mean they cannot be terrorists, vide the NHS  doctors who attempted to bomb Glasgow airport.  

No one on the committee raised this point

Animals

Nurse said it would 99% mice,  plus a few rats, fish and flies.   The Clare Hall Laboratory will continue to house many of the mice.

Staff careers

Nurse anticipates young researchers being recruited, spending 12 years at UKCRMI before carrying   UKCRMI projects and working methods to other research bodies.    Nurse also floated the idea that when they did leave UKCRMI, researchers would be allowed to take  for free the equipment they were  using for their experiments at UKCRMI plus funding for a year to carry on their research. The idea of this is that it would “seed”  the new work and ideas at different institutions.

Intellectual property rights

Cooper said that although  the rights would be held by the UKCRMI board,  it was unlikely they would produce much money.  This  judgement he based on the experience of other institutions engaged in scientific research.  Nurse backed him up.

Nurse said the arrangements for intellectual property rights for scientists remained to be negotiated.

Liaison with local residents

Cooper claimed that 11 significant changes had been made to the design of the building as a result of discussions with the local residents. He did not elaborate. 

Cooper said that three liaison groups were to be set up for: 

–          The period of construction

–          For proposed living centre

–          General matters

It is noteworthy that at no time has UKCRMI made any offer of compensation for disturbance to the local residents who will be directly affected by years of building work and the associated problems generated by transporting people and materials to and from the site.  That is a pretty strong pointer that they do not give a damn about the residents.

General comment

The committee was generally much less sharp in their questioning than the week before , although Stephen Metcalf again asked difficult questions and had some idea of how to build a line of questioning. Nonetheless, there were a number of disturbing incidences of not pushing very obvious matters such as the details of the BIS approval letter’s conditions.  I cannot really believe that this happened simply because of the inadequacy of the committee members. Rather, it suggests they have either been warned off causing trouble or are simply doing so off their own bat.

 (For those unfamiliar with Commons Committees a little bit of information. The members of a committee do not just ask what they want. They are each allocated a topic to question upon. The allocation is made by the committee clerk. This can make the questioning seem rather stilted as questions which naturally flow from points raised are dropped by the member because they do not come within his allotted area.)

If this committee does not recommend the project I shall very surprised .

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