Select Committee on Science and Technology

No. 26A of Session 2006-07 20 March 2007



The Science and Technology Select Committee has concluded that Research Council Institutes have a future as stand-alone organisations distinct from universities.

And in its report, Research Council Institutes, published today, the Committee is highly critical of the way the proposed restructuring of some institutes have been handled.

The Committee concludes that although there is often much to be gained from the embedding of individual institutes within higher education organisations, this should be done on an assessment of the needs of the science rather than as an across the board policy.

During their inquiry, the Committee looked at the proposals to relocate the Roslin Institute, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology  and the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill.

While the plans for the Roslin Institute seemed to be widely supported, the Committee found the opposite to be true at the other centres and in the case of CEH the Committee fears important areas of science may be lost. It wants to see a proper assessment of the impact on key skills of the proposed changes.

The proposals to relocate the NIMR at Mill Hill, North London to a site in central London have been an object lesson on how not to handle such a project, say MPs.

The Committee agrees with the Medical Research Council goal to achieve closer links between basic and clinical research and between medicines and other disciplines. However, it is not persuaded by the execution of that vision in this case.

Instead, the Committee would like to see a new plan developed to revitalise NIMR using both Mill Hill and the site currently identified by the MRC or another central London site which had the approval of all interested parties. It would also like to see more open and regular consultation and communication with staff at Mill Hill.

Overall, the Committee recommends that when the restructuring of an institute is mooted by a Research Council, steps should be taken to identify the key science programmes which must be preserved.

The Committee found that the RCIs often come into their own in times of emergency due to the ability of their Directors to respond swiftly to changing demands, particularly from Government.

However, it identified the need for greater co-operation on policy and calls for firmer commitments by some departments, in particular Defra, to their research institutes.

The Committee urges guaranteed long term funding for RCIs which could then be topped up by grants and commissions. Better co-ordination between all the bodies concerned is needed so that vital areas of research are protected.

Among the areas that could be overlooked are long-term monitoring on the environment or into diseases that are currently unfashionable to study.

The Committee believes a formal system is needed whereby the Office of Science and Innovation could raise the alarm where the planned changes of one department or Council would have a detrimental impact on the work of another or on the UK research base as a whole.

Commenting on the report, Chairman Phil Willis MP said: “Research Council Institutes have an extremely important part to play in the UK science base. We have a number of concerns about the specific restructuring proposals of some of our leading science centres and more generally about the ways these institutes are being funded and supported.

“They must be given long-term financial commitments to continue to carry out vital science work and there must be better coordination of the way that funding is applied.”

The text of the Report will be available via the Committee’s website from the time of publication.

For media inquiries please call Laura Kibby on 020 7219 0718. For any other information please call Ana Ferreira, on 020 7219 2793. Previous press notices and publications are available on our website.

Notes to editors:

• Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Science and Technology Committee is empowered to examine the “expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Innovation and its associated public bodies”. The Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.

• This inquiry was announced on 22 March 2006 in Press Notice No28 of session 2005-06.

• Evidence sessions in this inquiry were held on: Wednesday: 28 June when evidence was heard from BBSRC, NERC and  MRC; 1 November when evidence was heard from the Institute for Animal Health, Rothamsted Research, IGER (Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research), and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; on Tuesday 12 December when evidence was heard from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; on Wednesday: 13 December when evidence was heard from Unions representing staff at Mill Hill, the MRC and the Office of Science and Innovation, and 24 January when evidence was heard from Professor Malcolm Grant CBE, President and Provost, and Professor Michael Spyer, Vice-Provost (Biomedicine), University College, London

Membership of Committee

Mr Phil Willis (Lib Dem, Harrogate and Knaresborough)(Chairman)
Adam Afriyie (Con, Windsor)
Mr Robert Flello (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent South)
Linda Gilroy (Lab/Co-op, Plymouth Sutton)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East)
Chris Mole (Lab, Ipswich)
Mr Brooks Newmark (Con, Braintree)
Graham Stringer (Lab, Manchester, Blackley)
Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)
Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)