The United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Report and commentary on the STC hearing of 16 February 2011

February 18, 2011
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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

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 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




Chromosome biology

Cell biology

Evolutionary biology

Developmental biology


Genetics and genomics


Mathematical biology

Physiology and metabolism

Systems biology

Stem cell biology

Structural biology

Infectious disease

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.


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


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 .

Report and commentary on the STC hearing of 9 February 2011

February 13, 2011
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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 9 February between  at 9.26am and 10.34 am

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

Watch the session: at

UKCRMI witnesses

 Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost, University College London

 Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK

 Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive, Medical Research Council

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive, Wellcome Trust

Report and commentary by Robert Henderson

What UKCRMI expect to get from the Brill Place Laboratory

This question produced an avalanche of waffle such as “Flagship institute” and  “State of the art research for the 21st century” . The dread phrase “world-class” as in “a world class facility” featured a good deal throughout the hearing.  I defy anyone to find a hard fact amongst the UKCMRI replies when this question was answered. 

Further official/legal obstacles to the  laboratory

Savill said that  there were effectively none,  because news had come that very day of the acceptance of the MRC business plan by the Government (Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills – DBIS) .  This was, as far as he was concerned, the last obstacle overcome. However, Savill had no details  of the government’s sanction of the project yet and thought it probable  that with a project of this size and cost,  the department responsible  (Business,  Innovation and Skills) would require further clarification on some issues.  Savill  promised to inform the committee of any such clarifications and the response they elicited from UKCMRI.

Savill was also keen to stress how supportive both the current and the previous one had been of the UKCRMI project. (The most plausible sub-text to this is  that  it was a done deal, and had been right the way through. )

Walport  made the point that £300 million of charitable funds were involved,  which he claimed was a strong incentive for government to support the project. (Not when  similar amounts of public funds are also committed).

What the Brill Place site will contain :-

–  The NIMR  research from Mill Hill Laboratory

–   The CR-UK  research from laboratory at Lincoln’s Inn

This is very interesting because it means that not only will the work of the Mill laboratories have to be crammed into the site,   but also that of the CR-UK site.

Unfortunately none of the SIC members went into the size of the laboratories at either Mill Hill or Lincoln’s Inn.

Outsourcing from site

UKCRMI admitted that work would  have to be delegated to sites other than Brill Place because of a lack of space.  Edinburgh University (EU) already has  an informal  relationship with UKCRMI (Savill was head of the EU  medical school before joining the MRC)  and the consortium is in talks with Imperial College and Kings College  with a view to those bodies having some relationship with UKCRMI, perhaps as new partners . Walport said that UKCRMI would also be working with the pharmaceutical industry.

Savill claimed that having a small site would impose a  welcome discipline because it would focus minds on selecting the best  projects. (I must confess I had to stop myself laughing loudly at this point because the logical extension of this argument would be that  the rejected Temperance Hospital site (at less than 1 acre) would be even more valuable as it would sharpen such focus even more.  )

According to the evidence of Dr  Stephen Ley of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) to the Committee (22 11 2004)  the research undertaken at Mill Hill uses approximately 25% of the 47 acre site, that is, around 12 acres.  The new building will be very large and it may compensate for its much smaller site (less than 4 acres and  probably only 50% covered by the building)  by having many more floors than the buildings at Mill Hill. Nonetheless,   it seems improbable that what fits into 12 acres at Mill Hill would fit into a building covering around 2 acres, let alone the Mill Hill research  plus the CR-UK  research fitting into such a building.

The “cluster” justification

The only justification put forward for  using a central London site was the idea that having a heavy concentration of  scientific and medical talent in a limited area – laboratories, hospitals, universities – would expedite research considerably.   Savill cited the UK analysis of research expenditure for 2006 which estimated 33% of clinical research funds were spent in Greater London.

This argument was seriously  undermined by the fact UKCRMI  accepted that work would  be  outsourced.  Accepting Edinburgh University as part of a central London cluster requires great imagination. Accepting Mill Hill as part of the cluster is rather less demanding of a suspension of  the critical faculties , it being  a twenty minute train ride from the London homes of the Wellcome Trust, Cancer UK,  UCL et al.    This makes the Mill Hill site at least as accessible as  hospitals, laboratories within London, for example one of the hospitals cited by UKCRMI as being part of the cluster,  the Royal Free in Hampstead,  is a similar travelling time from Brill Place as the Mill Hill site.

When challenged to provide evidence that the cluster theory held water, Wallport said that there was a “peer-reviewed” paper which supported the claim,  although  he did not have the details of it to hand (he promised to forward them to the committee).  The fact that he only offered a single paper to support the contention suggests  that such evidence is decidedly thin on the ground.  As for the single paper being “peer-reviewed” , this does not necessarily mean it is a solid piece of research .Sadly, peer-review is often used to control what appears in journals not on the grounds of merit,  but because a piece of research supports the received wisdom of the moment.

Much was made about the attractions of London to top-class scientists. However, later in the evidence Savill went on to say that the  new laboratory would not be a place where  he expected scientists to spend a career. Rather, he saw it as a place where they could learn their   trade and then go out to spread the knowledge throughout the UK.  This rather clashed with the idea of attracting to scientists with an established reputation.

The initial cost of the project

After a substantial amount of questioning,  the following costs were elicited:

Harpal  Kumar  gave the figure of £650 million for the delivery of the building including all fixed equipment.  This figure includes  the related professional fees and a contingency element  to deal with time and/or cost overruns.

Savill said that a separate tranche of money  would be available to provide the unfixed equipment (I suspect this would be the vast majority of the equipment). He said this funding would reach £65 million for the initial equipment of the laboratory and what he coyly called “transitional costs”.   It was not said from  where the extra £65 million would come.

Considerable concern was expressed (especially by Stephen Metcalf)  about such expenditure especially in the present financial circumstances.  The wisdom of  building in central London  with its high costs rather than spending money on  the Mill Hill site  was strongly questioned, as was the costs of running the laboratory and the difficulty of recruiting low-paid  staff such as cleaners and rank-and-file security staff.  

The UKCRMI response  was to push  cluster  argument  hard , while  Savill used  the old international comparison ploy , saying that his experience was that the  expenditure was “commensurate with investment” in places such as China and the USA.  Savill produced no evidence that this was the case and the  STC members did  not ask for any.

Building time scale

Tenders for the main contractor’s role are underway. The first agreement should be signed in March 2011.

The projected time scale given by Harpal Kumar was:

– A start to be made on the site in May 2011

– Two years for excavating the  site and erecting the building.

– Two years for  fitting out the building

– Handing over of the building in the second quarter of 2015

– Transfer of  1,200-1,500 staff from Mill Hill and Lincoln’s Inn sites to be completed by 2017

The contingency element

When the question of  the contingency element of the £650 million was probed,  the person (Walport) who answered the question of how much this ran to was unable to give a figure. He was then asked  to say how much the contingency element would be as a percentage of the entire building cost .   This he gave as 15%. Walport promised to supply the committee with the actual figure. (It was rather odd that Walport  could give a percentage if he could not give a definite figure.  This suggests that the 15% percentage may   have been made up on the spur of the moment.) 

Assuming the contingency to be 15%, it seems to be  much too small  because the history of large projects involving public money is one of time overruns extending to years.  Moreover, the complex nature of the geology below the site, the depth to which the foundations must be sunk (five floors are  below ground), the Northern Line tube  below the site and the very cramped nature of the site which makes the removal and delivery of material to and from the site difficult, suggest that this is the type of large project which could easily  experience severe cost and time overruns.

The running costs

Walport put the “baseline cost” at £100 million pa (to be shared amongst the partners) , although he emphasised  that substantial amounts of additional money would come in through research grants.  

Delivery  within budget and on time? 

Walport did most of the talking on this issue. He cited the completion of the extension to the Sanger Institute, the Wellcome  building in the Euston Road and  the Diamond Synchrotron at Harwell as having been “On budget and on time” as proof that the project would be completed without time or cost overruns  (these were all less complex undertakings, for example,  the proposed UKCRMI building will have five stories underground which will run into problems with the water table and vibration from the Northern Line which runs directly below. )

Management of the site

UKCRMI was described as a “ Charitable Company with  shares “ which are held in different proportions by the various partners (I suspect they simply meant  a limited company) . Notwithstanding this,  Savill said that there would be a single font of authority  because the consortium had decided that the project would not be simply a co-location of laboratories.   There would  a single board to govern the project  and no bidding for floor space  or resources by the various UKCRMI partners .  Instead, the director designate Sir Paul Nurse  would decide what research was undertaken and how funds and laboratory space was allocated.


Walport   came out with the type of  verbal placebo beloved  of the Great and the Good.  He said there had been “extensive discussions with their security advisors and the Metropolitan Police” and that this had “satisfied us”.  And that was effectively that  as far as both the UKCRMI representatives and the STC members were concerned.

I know from my long correspondence with UKCRMI about security that they really do not have a clue about how it will be arranged. This fact was demonstrated  admission by Walport that they had no plans for the  evacuation of around 1,500 staff in the case of an emergency.  

The person responsible for security will be the chief executive.

The pathogens to be held in the Laboratory

According to Savill the site will hold  malaria, HIV, TB and Influenza pathogens.  All these fall within biohazard Level 3.

Savill said that the malaria and HIV pathogens could only be contracted by inoculation, while  TB and Influenza could be contracted. 

Both Savill and Walport claimed that the risk of  contracting TB or influenza  was greater in everyday life than it would be in the laboratory.  They produced no evidence to support this claim.

According to Savill, there are 781 Laboratories doing Level 3 biohazard work in the UK of which perhaps more than  100 are in Greater London and hence, nothing to worry about by then additional of another. ( There are three points to be made  about this. (1) the proposed laboratory is according to Savill, intended to be “the largest in Europe, perhaps the largest in the world”.  This means it is a larger and more complex undertaking than any now in existence in London.  (2) The publicity around the proposed building, including the enthusiastic endorsement by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Boris Johnson means that everyone knows where it is. (3) It is in the closest proximity to two iconic sites, Eurostar and the British Library. This, together with the highest level of  political endorsement, makes it a prime terrorist target . ) 

Savill  gave an unqualified “no” when the UKRMI witnesses were asked whether Level 4 biohazard work would be undertaken  at the new site.  However, when the question of the Level 4 licence held by the Mill Hill facility was raised,  there was a decided hesitation before this  stumbling, distinctly  nervous and evasive answer : “My understanding is that the facilities will allow the transfer of the work we plan.”  (Savill was generally very calm, straightforward  and fluent in his answers. His hesitation and equivocation  suggest that  there is something more than Level 3 work planned).

Nothing which was said during the hearing suggested there would be legal  bar to pathogens above Level  3.

Animal experiments

Wallport said that rodents would be used. (This compares with mice ,  rats, frogs and fish cited by the NIMR scientist  Dr Steven Ley in his evidence to the committee in 2004).

Intellectual  Property

Walport said that intellectual property arising from research at Brill Place  would be owned  by UKCRMI and “managed for the benefit of human beings”.

Sale of the  Mill Hill Site

Asked whether there were decontamination problems with the site before its sale,  Savill said “Decontamination is a strong word. Decommissioning certainly.”   (I suspect that “decommissioning” bears the same relationship to “decontamination” as Level 3+ biohazard does to Level 4 biohazard.)

The situation after the hearing

If the committee recommends that the site is unsuitable for UKCRMI and that consequently the work should be done elsewhere, for example, through the development of the Mill Hill site,  the government is not bound by their recommendations.  However, even if rejected by the government, such a recommendation would  at least fuel further high-level  public examination of the issue.   

My own feeling is that the committee will recommend that the project go ahead on the Brill Place site.  It was not that the committee’s questioning was generally feeble or that any real support for the project was evinced during the hearing. The problem is that both major parties have publicly supported the project in fulsome terms . That makes it very difficult for the committee members, all but one of whom are Tory or Labour, to go against their leadership’s wishes. It is also true that anything with the  words “medical research” attach to it plays well with the general public.

Bearing all that in mind, I think the only realistic chance there is of still stopping the project is to get the story of Gordon Brown’s interference to fly. To that end I shall l be trying to get the failed bidders to kick up a fuss in the next week or so.  

Robert Henderson  12 February 2011


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