UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) - Science and Technology Committee Contents

2  The UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Expectations of the project

14. During the oral evidence sessions we asked all those involved with the project what they hoped the UKCMRI would achieve. Professor Grant, President and Provost of University College London (UCL), described the UKCMRI as the "most exciting science project in Britain today".[10] Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK (CR-UK), told us that the UKCMRI would be "certainly one of the largest, if not the largest, institutes in Europe",[11] and represented the opportunity for CR-UK to build on its:

    tremendously successful [London] research institute [at] Lincoln's Inn Fields [...] which has carried out some of the most fundamental work into the understanding of cancer, how it occurs, how it spreads and the factors that drive that. For us this is about the continuation of that work, but much more so it is about making sure that we have access to resources and the creative energy that will enable us to accelerate that progress.[12]

15. Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), explained that the "exciting thing about this for the MRC is the prospect of added value through interdisciplinarity, joining with other like-minded groups of scientists in creating what will be the biggest and most exciting development in the UK",[13] and Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of the Wellcome Trust, told us that he hoped the UKCMRI would "achieve extraordinary improvements in human and animal health".[14]

16. Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive and Director of UKCMRI, explained that the project was "the most exciting biomedical research initiative for a generation in the United Kingdom. It is an extremely important project. It is one which is looked upon with envy from the community around the world",[15] and Rt Hon David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, echoed Sir Paul's words telling us that he considered the UKCMRI was "perhaps the most significant development in British biomedical science for a generation".[16]

17. We acknowledge the importance of the UKCMRI project to biomedical science in the UK.

18. We examine the scientific vision and its implementation in detail from paragraph 26.

The Joint Venture Agreement

19. The Heads of Terms for a Joint Venture Agreement (JVA) were agreed in early 2010 by the four partners in the consortium and Government. Following further detailed discussions between the MRC, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, HM Treasury and the Department of Health, the JVA was signed by the chief executives of the four partners and Sir David Cooksey, on behalf of UKCMRI Ltd, in the presence of Mr Willetts and the Earl Howe, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Quality, Department of Health, on 9 November 2010.[17]

20. Through the JVA the consortium:

    enter into a joint venture with UKCMRI for the purpose of establishing and operating the Centre. The Centre will operate as a single institute dedicated to advancing knowledge of the biological basis of human health, enabling translation of its research outputs to clinical utility and creating an environment that will foster and enable innovation in medical interventions and technologies.[18]


21. Preparations for the project predated the signing of the JVA. Back in March 2009 the four partners in the consortium appointed an executive team to take responsibility for the delivery and operation of UKCMRI. John Cooper, formerly Director of Resources of the Wellcome Trust, was appointed as Chief Operating Officer and Interim Chief Executive of UKCMRI from June 2009. The Executive team included a Construction Director, General Counsel, Finance Director, two Scientific Directors and a Medical Director.[19] As we have noted, Sir Paul Nurse took up his post as the first Director and Chief Executive of UKCMRI in January 2011 having chaired the UKCMRI Scientific Planning Committee for the previous two years.

22. The Planning Application for UKCMRI was approved by the local planning authority, Camden Council, on 16 December 2010.[20] The detailed construction, fitting-out and commissioning programme has been agreed with Laing O'Rourke, the appointed main contractor. Preparatory work began on the site in early May 2011 and construction of the Centre will begin on 27 June 2011. There will then follow a two year build programme followed by two years' fitting-out and commissioning. If everything goes to plan, the UKCMRI should therefore be able to commence operations in late Spring 2015.[21]

Potential new partners

23. Imperial College told us in written evidence that it was "committed to becoming an equal academic partner in UKCMRI with negotiations ongoing. Partnering with UKCMRI would provide mutually beneficial opportunities across all of our activities".[22] When asked about the discussions with potential partners Sir Mark Walport indicated that they were "ongoing" and "proceeding well".[23]

24. Professor Sir Richard Trainor, Principal of King's College, submitted that "close academic links with all three major biomedical academic institutions in London (UCL, Imperial and King's) would be of great benefit to UKCMRI" and that:

    it would facilitate access by UKCMRI researchers to the translational and clinical research facilities and resources which all three institutions possess in abundance [and] provide a fulcrum through which the three London academic institutions can forge London-wide collaborations with UKCMRI and with each other.[24]

25. The UKCMRI issued a press release on 14 April 2011 announcing that both Imperial College and King's College London were set to join the consortium as additional academic partners.[25] We welcome the addition of Imperial College and King's College London as new partners to the UKCMRI project.

The UKCMRI's scientific vision

26. The rationale for the UKCMRI project is the scientific vision it has at its core. The top-level vision is to understand how living things work and use it for the benefit for humanity.[26]

27. From the start of the UKCMRI project the consortium decided that it would seek scientific advice from around the world. In January 2008 the members of the consortium set up a Science Planning Committee and asked Sir Paul Nurse to chair it.[27] Harpal Kumar, CR-UK Chief Executive, told us that Sir Paul was "an appropriate choice as a Nobel Laureate to lead this thinking".[28]

28. UKCMRI Ltd, in its submission, explained that the membership of the Committee included many of the world's leading figures in biomedical science, as well as representatives of the founding partners in the consortium. In March 2009, the Science Planning Committee held a Horizon Scanning Workshop attended by some 50 eminent scientists from around the world and from MRC's National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), CR-UK's London Research Institute (LRI), UCL and the Wellcome Trust. The Science Planning Committee concluded its work in April 2010, publishing a report to the UKCMRI's consortium, which was "enthusiastically endorsed".[29] In June 2010, UKCMRI published a summary of the Science Planning Committee's discussions and recommendations in the form of the Scientific Vision and Research Strategy.[30] Its vision was summarised as follows:

  • to research the fundamental biological processes underlying human health and disease;
  • broad and deep research—capable of covering all areas of disease and all levels from the molecule to the whole organism;
  • take interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to biomedical research, drawing input from chemists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers and others, as well as biomedical scientists;
  • promote a dynamic working environment with constant refreshment of ideas and research scientists;
  • drive the development and roll-out of innovative new technologies, to open new avenues of research;
  • nurture a culture in which clinical and commercial translation is valued as highly as discovery research;
  • build extensive networks locally, nationally and internationally, with academia, industry and the public sector;
  • play a national role in developing technologies and training scientists and technical staff for the benefit of the wider UK biomedical science base; and
  • engage with the public to build strong relationships both locally and nationally.[31]

29. The JVA explained how the vision will be put into effect:

    The Chief Executive Officer, advised by the Scientific Advisory Board, will prepare the Scientific and Innovation Strategy, which will identify:
  • the scientific and innovation programmes for UKCMRI;
  • the capabilities and resources required effectively to accomplish commercial and clinical translation and to encourage the development of medical interventions;
  • subject to the provisions of this agreement, the organisational and governance mechanisms that will ensure its successful implementation of the Scientific and Innovation Strategy; and
  • the funding required.[32]

    30. In their joint memorandum CR-UK and the MRC stated that the UKCMRI presented an opportunity for them to build on the success of some of their current research institutes and would allow the MRC to optimise its contribution to translational research. CR-UK's expectation is that moving into UKCMRI will "help to significantly accelerate progress in the fight against cancer."[33] The Wellcome Trust hoped that the UKCMRI would "provide an environment in which outstanding researchers from around the world can pursue big research questions, generating breakthroughs in knowledge and innovations that will enable major advances in health."[34] GlaxoSmithKline supported these claims in its written evidence stating that the UKCMRI "will lead ultimately to improved patient and economic benefit for the UK."[35]

    31. The UKCMRI's Scientific vision and research strategy states the necessity for the Centre to have a critical mass: "Size matters not for its own sake but because it creates the critical mass necessary for successful multidisciplinary research."[36] The MRC, in their Final Full Business Case put to Government in January 2011, reiterated this point:

      The founders were particularly aware of the importance of creating a facility capable of sustaining "Critical Mass" which is recognised as being scale of 1,125 scientists or more, currently not seen in the UK. This scale will enable UKCMRI to be competitive with the major new biomedical developments being built in the USA, Europe and Asia.[37]

    32. UKCMRI's website states that in time UKCMRI will grow to house some 1,500 staff, making it one of Europe's largest centres of biomedical research in one building. Groups spanning the biological, clinical and physical sciences will share insight and techniques to capture a more complete understanding of life's processes. The website explains "how the UKCMRI will blur the boundaries between 'academic', 'industry' and 'public sector' research, promoting interactions and collaborations to accelerate translation and innovation. Clinical liaison and technology transfer will be both encouraged and valued."[38] A key role for the UKCMRI will be to train scientists and technicians at all levels to the highest standards, preparing them for leadership roles in other biomedical research institutions across the country.[39]


    33. Sir Paul Nurse explained that the driving idea behind the UKCMRI was that "things really move with brilliant individuals and brilliant individuals working together", that the best results were achieved when you have "very high-quality people" working in a "very fluid environment".[40] He explained:

      What really moves the needle is excellent people. You need to identify the very best in the world—not just in this country. You attract them, you train them to the highest standards within the country to generate a set of really excellent people. This strategy self-assembles from brilliant individuals. I can't emphasise that enough. [...] You assemble a hundred brains that are as good as you, and you give them the tools and release their creativity. You interact with them and you construct the strategy that constantly evolves.[41]

    We examine "clustering" further in chapter 4.

    34. Sir Paul has the responsibility of preparing the scientific and innovation strategy. Harpal Kumar, from CR-UK, told us that

      the director of the institute [...] will establish the scientific strategy. The scientific programme will determine who needs to be given space in the building in order to accommodate that scientific programme and will allocate space and other resources accordingly, entirely driven by that programme and strategy, which [...] will be signed off by the board of UKCMRI but entirely driven by what Sir Paul Nurse determines is the right programme of research.[42]

    Professor Savill, MRC Chief Executive, indicated that the "bones of the strategy exist" and that "the flesh will come as we move towards establishment and occupation" of the UKCMRI.[43]


    35. Sir Paul highlighted that a key part of the strategy will be:

      to attract the very best from around the world to come and work here when they are young and try to encourage them to put down roots so that the very best in the world contribute to the British economy and to the British biomedical research endeavour.[44]

    36. The UKCMRI career structure aims to:

      develop world class researchers, many of whom will go on to hold leadership positions in biomedical research institutions in the UK and across the world. One measure of UKCMRI's future success will be that a high proportion of its alumni hold such positions.[45]

    The UKCMRI's Scientific Vision and Research Strategy outlines a typical group leader's career structure:

    Table 1: UKCMRI scientific career structure
    A majority of UKCMRI research group leaders will be joining the institute to establish their own independent research programmes after a period of postdoctoral research. To enable its scientists to develop world-class research programmes attacking important biological questions pertinent to human health, UKCMRI will provide substantial long-term core support over a period of about 12 years, as well as a strong mentoring programme.

    The UKCMRI group leader career structure will include the following:

    • An initial research period of six years, towards the end of which the scientific programme will be subjected to external peer review. The review will assess whether the research programme is of high quality and is making significant impact internationally.
    • Subject to the success of the initial review, an individual will progress to senior group leader status, and core support will be renewed for a further six years.
    • At the end of this second six-year period, most group leaders will have become established as international leaders in their fields and will be expected to progress to scientific leadership positions in other institutions. UKCMRI will cultivate appropriate external relationships to facilitate such transitions, particularly within the UK. The group leader mentoring programme will be used to ensure that career transitions are made smoothly.
    • Long-term group leader positions will become available at UKCMRI from time to time and recruitment for these positions will be on a worldwide competitive basis. Group leaders in the 'six plus six' career pathway will be free to apply for these positions.

    Source: UKCMRI Scientific vision and research strategy, p15

    37. The Earl Howe, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Quality, Department of Health, noted that "the career structure available in UKCMRI will be such that we will have brilliant young researchers training and becoming established at the centre and then dispersing around the country, taking their expertise with them."[46]

    38. Sir Paul added that the building's layout was very much driven by the scientific vision of the project; the structure within the building, the floor lay-out, will not be departmentalised. People from different disciplines would be mixed together—the structure would not be based on discipline and would be "much more anarchic [...] where it will be driven by the individuals themselves. [...] It is a completely new way of working."[47]

    Science and technology at the UKCMRI

    39. In our call for evidence we asked what new technologies and innovations were being considered at the UKCMRI. UKCMRI Ltd told us that the emphasis so far had been on "cultural and structural approaches to ensure that the institute is continually alert to the opportunities that arise during the course of its research."[48] The Science Planning Committee had devoted a "significant" portion of its work to potential programmes and had held discussions with leaders from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors, with clinicians, and with other experts in the field of technology transfer and the exploitation of intellectual property.[49]

    40. UKCMRI Ltd's memorandum listed potential areas of research:

    • Model organisms: The ability to engineer precise genetic changes into well-characterised models is generating a wealth of data on the functions of molecules in cells and the living body. Particularly exciting is the growing ability to explore aspects of human biology.
    • Stem cell manipulation: Reprogramming of adult cells to create induced pluripotent stem cells is generating cells for study, including cell lines derived from patients with particular medical conditions. UCL's strengths in regenerative medicine will provide an effective translational route for such research.
    • Imaging: The ability to follow biological processes continuously in real time is transforming our understanding of living systems. The interdisciplinary nature of UKCMRI and UCL's strengths will allow chemistry, computing, physics and engineering input into the development of imaging technologies.
    • Chemical biology: As well as genetic manipulation, chemical probes can be used to interfere with biochemical pathways, to assess their role in biological processes. UKCMRI's interdisciplinary links will allow increasingly sophisticated probes to be developed, thereby expediting the development of new drugs.
    • Systems biology and mathematical modelling: While 'wet' biology will underlie much of UKCMRI research, computer-based and theoretical approaches will draw upon advances in systems biology and mathematical modelling.
    • Synthetic biology: The application of engineering principles is opening up increasingly sophisticated forms of genetic engineering, in which different cellular components can be put together in precise combinations to build biological systems with specified characteristics.[50]

    41. Several areas of possible innovation opportunities were highlighted, including new therapeutic drug opportunities arising from basic science discoveries in specified disease areas, diagnostic opportunities arising from basic science discoveries, development of new technological platforms and of novel instrumentation or research platforms, and discoveries that have the potential for translation into new prevention or screening strategies.[51]


    42. We have set out the UKCMRI's strategic vision at some length for two reasons: to show the rationale behind the UKCMRI; and to provide a point of reference when we, or our successor committee, re-examine the project. We welcome the scientific vision set out for the UKCMRI. It shows, in our view, the concept of the UKCMRI is underpinned with a comprehensive, ambitious and ground-breaking scientific vision. If this can be realised, we believe that it has an excellent chance in delivering its primary objective of benefiting mankind.

    43. In chapters 3 and 4 we discuss how the UKCMRI intends to be a national asset, not just benefiting London. We welcome the addition of new partners and, to ensure the benefits of the UKCMRI flow to the whole country, we hope more partners, particularly from a wider area, will be sought.

    10   Q 2 Back

    11   Q 13 Back

    12   Q 2 Back

    13   Q 4 Back

    14   Q 5 Back

    15   Q 80 Back

    16   Q 136 Back

    17   Ev 35, para 1.1 Back

    18   UKCMRI Joint Venture Agreement, Recitals (A). [Copies of the redacted Joint Venture Agreement for UKCMRI are available via the Charity Commission's central register:] Back

    19   Ev 37, para 10 Back

    20   "Plans approved for visionary institute: 16 December 2010", UKCMRI website: Back

    21   "Construction update", UKCMRI website: Back

    22   Ev w12, para 8 Back

    23   Q 6 Back

    24   Ev w11, para 4 Back

    25   UKCMRI press announcement, Two more leading universities plan to join scientific powerhouse, 14 April 2011 Back

    26   Q 102 Back

    27   Q 41 Back

    28   As above Back

    29   Ev 37, para 6 Back

    30   Scientific vision and research strategy, UKCMRI, June 2010 Back

    31   Ev 36, para 3 Back

    32   UKCMRI Joint Venture Agreement, para 16.1 Back

    33   Ev 48, para 15 Back

    34   Ev 49, para 16 Back

    35   Ev w17, para 2 Back

    36   Scientific vision and research strategy, p1 Back

    37   Medical Research Council, UKCMRI Final Full Business Case, version 7, January 2011, Foreword Back

    38   "Scientific community", UKCMRI website: Back

    39   "National benefits", UKCMRI website: Back

    40   Qq 130 and 103 Back

    41   Q 102 Back

    42   Q 39 Back

    43   Q 41 Back

    44   Q 93 Back

    45   Scientific vision and research strategy, p15 Back

    46   Q 155 Back

    47   Q 133 Back

    48   Ev 39, para 27 Back

    49   Ev 39, para 28 Back

    50   Ev 39, para 30 Back

    51   Ev 39, para 31 Back

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    © Parliamentary copyright 2011
    Prepared 25 May 2011