Fur flies over MRC merger

December 3, 2004

Anna Fazackerley reports on threats to resign and accusations of 'coercion' by MRC chief

Members of the Medical Research Council's governing body have threatened to resign if MPs attack plans to merge one of their biggest research institutes with a London university, The Times Higher can reveal.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee held an inquiry into whether the MRC should merge its £30 million National Institute for Medical Research - based in north London - with King's College London or University College London, to create a major new centre for "translational" medical research.

During an explosive evidence session, a leading NIMR scientist told the committee that Colin Blakemore, MRC chief executive, had threatened him with the sack if he disagreed with him about the merger plans. Professor Blakemore later denied the allegation.

Sources close to the MRC confirmed this week that members of the MRC council, made up of senior figures from Government, academe and industry, had said privately that they would resign if the Science and Technology Select Committee sided with the NIMR and produced a damning report about the MRC.

Last March, the committee produced a highly acerbic report accusing the council of keeping its research community in the dark about its financial problems.

Professor Blakemore told The Times Higher that a second critical report from the MPs "could potentially precipitate a crisis of governance and confidence" within his council.

The one-day NIMR inquiry generated more than 100 written submissions from around the world, and individual MPs have been lobbied with phone calls and letters.

In the session on Wednesday, Robin Lovell-Badge, an NIMR scientist who sat on the independent task force that set the options for the institute's future, said that members of the international task force suffered "coercion" to support a move to central London.

Professor Lovell-Badge claimed that Professor Blakemore had called him late at night threatening him with the loss of his job.

He told the committee that Professor Blakemore had said to him: "Robin, I don't know how you can disagree with me, I am your employer."

But Professor Blakemore said after the meeting: "I categorically deny this.

And it puzzles me that such a serious accusation should not have been voiced as soon as the offence was meant to have occurred, rather than six months later."

John Skehel, director of the NIMR, read aloud from a confidential email between Professor Blakemore and a taskforce member, which he claimed illustrated that "there was extreme pressure... to vote in a particular way". Nonetheless he insisted that his institute was "not defying" the MRC, simply disagreeing with its decision.

The MRC presented the committee with a statement signed by all members of the task force, apart from the two NIMR employees, which said: "The work of the taskforce was properly conducted and the views of staff at the NIMR and the proposals for the Mill Hill site were fully considered. We were united in recommending a possible move into partnership with a leading university and hospital in central London."

Professor Blakemore told the committee that the NIMR was able to use contacts around the world to mount "very effective propaganda campaigns".

He said that the £30 million given to the NIMR each year was a "huge investment" and that his council had a responsibility to serve "the whole country and not just the interests of the staff at the NIMR".

Sir Anthony Cleaver, chair of the MRC, said that if the NIMR was to be a "world-class institute" in the future, it would need world- class facilities - which would not be possible at the current Mill Hill site, even with refurbishment.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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