Rivals vie for new MRC site

October 22, 2004

Two London universities are battling head to head to turn the National Institute for Medical Research into a groundbreaking centre for clinical and scientific research.

After months of deliberation, the Medical Research Council ruled last week that the NIMR, the largest of its research establishments, should move from north-west London to a university site in central London, with a new focus on patient-based research. King's College London and University College London are competing to win the partnership contract.

But senior figures at the NIMR greeted the decision with anger, warning that relocation will waste millions of pounds without improving their science.

The NIMR has a strong international reputation for basic research. The new institute will take a lead in research that is more directly related to understanding the mechanisms of disease, so-called translational research.

Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the MRC, told The Times Higher : "I visited the US a couple of weeks ago and there was widespread excitement in the air about translational research. We've got the opportunity in this country to create an institute for early-phase translational research that could match anything in the world."

He added: "Two strategic reviews say it will be better to have the institute next to a university and a hospital, so we will pursue that option."

The central London biomedical research facility is expected to take at least five years to build at a cost of about £120 million.

The King's College bid may prove tempting because King's is understood to be offering at least £30 million in capital costs, as well as land worth £10 million. But the international task force that has been reviewing the NIMR has expressed scepticism about the college's academic record.

Meanwhile, Mike Spyer, vice-provost for biomedicine at UCL, said: "We already have extremely strong links with the NIMR, so it would be an absolutely natural transition for us."

He added: "This (new institute) will make the UK potentially the leading environment for clinical trials and clinical experimental medicine in the next few decades."

But Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the NIMR's division of developmental genetics and a member of the task force deciding its future, claimed the MRC's decision did not reflect the views of everyone on the task force.

He warned that the relocation would threaten the institute's scientific independence, adding: "There is absolutely no proof that we can do more clinical, translational research if we are located next to a teaching hospital."

Professor Lovell-Badge said: "There are a lot of very angry people here. It just doesn't make sense not to have (staying at) Mill Hill as an equally valid option."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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