Super-lab in scrutiny dispute

April 3, 2008

The chairman of the parliamentary select committee responsible for scrutinising science has hit out at the Government over its response to MPs' concerns about a project to build a £500 million super-laboratory in London.

The Government this week refused a request from the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee to provide quarterly progress reports on the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. The project is backed by the Medical Research Council among others. Phil Willis, the committee chairman, called the refusal "naive". The updates were requested by the committee in a report published in January as a way of easing its concerns over the financing, timetabling and "science vision" of the centre.

"The Government and the MRC ... do not think it is sensible to produce quarterly reports for the committee irrespective of whether there have been developments, as these risk creating a bureaucratic burden," the Government said in its response to the report, although it did not rule out providing "further information" as the project progresses.

"For the Government to say to (a) main scrutiny body 'we don't think you should have this' is naive," Mr Willis told Times Higher Education. "You have a committee of MPs who are enthusiastic, and the best defence is independent scrutiny."

The Government's response also defends the Treasury's decision to claw back £92 million from the MRC's Commercial Fund.

The MRC earned this money by exploiting its intellectual property and had earmarked part of it to fund the capital costs of the UKCMRI. "The MRC did not have the authority to spend the cash surplus it had accumulated," said the response.

Mr Willis also criticised this decision. "If Gordon Brown is saying we need to get better at translating (medical) research, what incentive is there if any intellectual property then gets raided?" he asked.

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