High emotion at NIMR hearing

Politicians hear serious allegations of coercion and job threats over relocation plans

Dec 1, 2004
Pat Hagan(pat.hagan@btconnect.com)

The full scale of the rift between the Medical Research Council (MRC) and senior scientists at its National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) over plans to relocate the institute emerged during a heated debate today (December 1) at the Houses of Parliament.

The hearing, called by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee as part of an inquiry into the NIMR's future, heard allegations from one scientist that he had been threatened with the loss of his job by MRC Chief Executive Colin Blakemore if he continued to fight the relocation plans.

Robin Lovell-Badge, who works at the NIMR, told Members of Parliament (MPs) on the committee that Blakemore telephoned him on at least two occasions attempting to "coerce" him into changing his mind.

"I had telephone calls late at night from Colin Blakemore threatening my job," Lovell-Badge told the inquiry. "There were two occasions in particular last spring. He made statements such as 'Robin, I don't know how you could disagree with me—I am your employer'."

Blakemore told The Scientist after the hearing that he vehemently denied making any such threats and was yet to consider what, if any, action he would take as a result of the claims.

"I deny that completely," Blakemore said. "There is absolutely no question of me threatening his job."

The extraordinary allegations came during 2 hours of evidence from both sides. MPs first quizzed Blakemore, MRC Chairman Anthony Cleaver and MRC Council Member John Savill on their management of the NIMR review. They then questioned NIMR Director John Skehel, Lovell-Badge, and Steve Gamblin—a scientist who sat on the NIMR task force—on their opposition to the current proposals.

The dispute centers around whether one of the options for future development should be for the NIMR to stay at its current site in Mill Hill, north London.

MRC leaders favor relocating to central London in order to team up with either King's College London or University College London. They believe this would help to speed up the rate at which basic research translates into clinical practice.

But NIMR scientists claim the MRC has reneged on an initial pledge to include staying put at Mill Hill as an option, if relocating proves too expensive or unlikely to significantly benefit the quality of scientific research.

It also emerged during the hearing that the MRC earlier this week circulated a letter to be signed by all 10 task force members. The letter, intended to try and unify their views, reportedly asked members to agree that they had sanctioned the proposals to relocate "without coercion."

Lovell-Badge and Gamblin refused to sign the letter, and MPs were told two other prominent task force members—Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse from Rockefeller University and Richard Flavell from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—also refused to sign it unless the words "without coercion" were removed.

Lovell-Badge told The Scientist: "Nurse and Flavell said they would only sign if those words were left out because it's clear there was coercion."

Committee chairman Ian Gibson—who described today's hearing as one of the liveliest he has ever witnessed—revealed that more than 100 pieces of evidence had been received in the 4 weeks since the investigation was announced.

Gibson told the MRC delegates: "We have received evidence and surreptitious phone calls from all over the world. You seem to have upset an awful lot of people."

The MRC is due to consider plans from King's College London and University College London at its next meeting on December 15. However, it is unlikely to make any decisions on the NIMR future until its following meeting in February.

MPs are expected to issue a report on their investigation early next year.