NIMR inquiry criticizes MRC

Politicians attack handling of relocation plans but clear Colin Blakemore of coercion

By | February 8, 2005

Britain's Medical Research Council (MRC) has been criticized for its handling of the planned relocation of one of its leading institutions.

A report by a committee of politicians has concluded the MRC "lost the confidence" of staff at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and "failed to carry its troops with it" during the process of reviewing the institute's future.

But it cleared MRC Chief Executive Colin Blakemore of accusations that he had bullied NIMR staff into agreeing with the relocation plans, ruling instead that he had been "heavy handed" in his lobbying of key figures involved in the review.

The report, by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, also attacked unnamed NIMR staff for interfering with the process and almost undermining Blakemore's position as MRC chief executive. Politicians on the committee called for the two sides to put the dispute behind them and pull together on deciding the future of the institute.

Chairman and Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Ian Gibson said in a press statement: "It is very unfortunate that a squabble between two parts of the same organization has been allowed to interfere with important decisions about the future of medical research in the UK."

"Science is not just about laboratories and fancy new institutes; it is about the people inside them too," Gibson said.

The committee decided to investigate the MRC's handling of the matter after a routine fact-finding mission to the NIMR in Mill Hill, North London, last autumn, during which staff bombarded MPs with concerns over their future.

The MRC wants to close the current site and team up with either King's College London or University College London (UCL) in a bid to improve collaboration between laboratory-based and clinical scientists. But senior NIMR scientists believe staying at Mill Hill should be considered as a fallback option, in case a move to central London falls through.

Matters reached a head during a particularly heated committee hearing, during which Robin Lovell-Badge, a senior NIMR scientist and member of the task force that looked at the options, accused Blakemore of threatening him with the sack if he failed to support relocation. Blakemore vehemently denied the charge.

The MRC meets later this week to consider bids put forward by the two London universities and may even announce which one has been has been successful.

The MPs' report makes no recommendation on what the best option is for the NIMR. However, it does clearly state that MRC chiefs must be certain the successful bid provides better quality research facilities than Mill Hill and has the funding to back it up.

Blakemore told The Scientist he welcomed the report and said he felt greatly relieved. "The last few weeks have been very tense, awaiting the outcome. I am delighted that they found no evidence to support the accusations [of bullying], so from a personal perspective, it's a major relief."

"Most of all, I believe it's now time to draw a line under it all and move ahead with proper interaction between the MRC and one of its biggest institutes," Blakemore added.

On the question of his appointment as head of the task force, which MPs described as naïve, Blakemore said: "Whether I should have been appointed chairman was debatable. But it was not a decision that I made. As for being heavy-handed, what I would say is that I was having to work under incredibly difficult circumstances, and trying to maintain a consensus [on the task force] was extremely difficult."

Blakemore predicted this week's council meeting will produce a decision on where the NIMR is likely to move: "I am confident there will be a definite outcome. The only question is whether to choose between King's College or UCL, and I am optimistic that one of them will be acceptable."

Robin Lovell-Badge told The Scientist the report had highlighted flaws in the MRC's handling of the affair, and he defended the attitude of NIMR staff. "The fact that MPs were critical of the process says something. The really important issue is, Will the MRC start listening to us?"

"People at the institute really care about science, and that's all we have ever cared about. We are not worried about the bricks and mortar, but where the best place is to have an institute like this. The MRC should recognize that fact," said Lovell-Badge.

Lovell-Badge also stands by his allegation that Blakemore threatened him on two separate occasions. "I know exactly what was said to me, and in the context in which it was said, it was a threat."

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