National medical research project under threat unless it gets Whitehall backing. Anna Fazackerley reports
A much-trumpeted multimillion-pound national centre for patient-focused research at University College London may not go ahead unless last-minute redrafting of the business plan can convince the Treasury to back it, The Times Higher can reveal.
In February last year, the Medical Research Council announced that its prestigious National Institute of Medical Research - which produced five Nobel prizewinners - would merge with UCL, with a new focus on "translational" research. The news was seen as a major coup for UCL, which had battled against King's College London to secure the ground-breaking deal.
But this week, the MRC confirmed that the project was looking extremely precarious.
Colin Blakemore, the council's chief executive, told The Times Higher :
"There is a very real possibility it might not go ahead. If the Treasury does not give us permission, it can't happen."
The costs of the project have spiralled from £320 million to £367 million and there is not enough money on the table to plug the gap.
The Office for Science and Innovation refused to submit the plans to the Treasury for funding approval, stating that the business case for the expensive move to central London was not yet sufficiently convincing.
An independent review by the Office of Government Commerce, which oversees major public sector projects, came to the same conclusion. The OGC team gave the council until mid-December to revise the plans.
On Monday morning, Professor Blakemore and new MRC chair, Sir John Chisolm, met senior scientists at NIMR to warn them that their resource expenditure would be capped and savings would have to be found on the project.
NIMR staff have been campaigning furiously to stay at their Mill Hill site in North London since the idea of a move was first mooted in 2003. They lobbied MPs, the media and academics in other countries.
But Professor Blakemore said he was "absolutely certain" that the council would not back down and the Mill Hill site would close whatever happened.
He said: "We know there is disappointment at NIMR but in the end what must be delivered is the council's view of the future and not the vision of the institute's staff alone."
He praised the quality of science at the institute, but added: "It costs the MRC £34 million per annum to run NIMR. That is a very substantial proportion of our income at a time when fewer than 20 per cent of applications are being funded by MRC boards."
Professor Blakemore expressed regret that the proposed merger had taken three years to get this far. He said: "Preparing the business case has been a huge task. It hasn't been helped by continuing difficulty in the relationship with NIMR.
"We have spent a huge amount of time firefighting rather than moving ahead."
Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the division of developmental genetics at NIMR, said that staff were upset and angry following the meeting.
He said: "The distinct feeling is that they have always planned to downsize us. We have spent millions on consultants and wasted huge amounts of scientists' and administrators' time, just to end up where we started."
He added that the absence of a clear back-up option should the UCL plans fall through was demotivating.
Dr Lovell-Badge said: "Many of us have had offers elsewhere, but we've stayed because this is a fantastic place to work. If we feel we are losing the advantages this institute has, we will take the best offer we can get - anywhere. It is a no-brainer."
Yet UCL insisted there was no crisis. Mike Spyer, its vice-provost for biomedicine, said: "I feel confident this is achievable. A considerable amount of work has been done by the project board and the steering group in the past month."
He added: "This is really important. The UK needs facilities to provide the optimal opportunity to translate first-class basic science into clinical use - be that therapeutics, technology or approaches - as rapidly as possible."
Waiting for the green light
Sir Keith Peters, the notoriously tough-talking former regius professor of physics at Cambridge University, has been drafted in to the National Institute for Medical Research as acting director. His primary tasks will be to restore calm and push the case for the new central London institute.
He stepped in last month when the institute's longstanding director, Sir John Skehel, came to the end of his tenure. Sir John was a vocal opponent of the UCL merger.
Sir Keith declined to comment on whether he had been hired because of his no-nonsense attitude. Instead, he stressed his admiration for the institute, saying: "I think the people at NIMR have had a difficult time.
There has been a protracted period of uncertainty. My role at one level is to keep morale as high as possible." He added: "I hope we can persuade staff there are still huge gains to be had, even if the funding base has to be contracted somewhat."
He confirmed that Scott Fraser, Anna L. Rosen professor of biology and professor of bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, was waiting to take over as director if the UCL project got the green light.
The National Institute for Medical Research has 200 scientists, 100 postdoctoral fellows and 100 postgraduates. It is the largest MRC research institute
- The human influenza virus was discovered there in 1933. The NIMR is working to tackle the threat of a flu pandemic
- It houses a World Health Organisation Centre for Tuberculosis. Experts say the emergence of drug-resistant TB is major health threat
- Other research areas include Aids and malaria
- Much of its research is basic rather than clinical. Topics range from how embryos develop to the structure of proteins that allow viruses to enter cells.