The United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Report and commentary on the STC hearing of 9 February 2011

February 13, 2011
1 Comment

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  http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=7645

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.

Security

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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