I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old joke about a tourist lost in the West of Ireland asking a local farmer for directions to Dublin. He replies: ‘Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. I think this is a good metaphor for the recent past of NIMR and how the Crick came into existence.

There are authoritative and comprehensive accounts of the history of NIMR at Mill Hill, here for example [http://www.historyofnimr.org.uk/], but I wanted to write down my own personal recollection before the mists of time descend. Doing this also reminded me about the unintended consequences of decisions – an idea that seemed relevant given the current uncertainty about the UK and the EU.

For me, the story of the Crick started in March 2003. I remember it very clearly as I was sitting in a colleague’s office at NIMR interviewing potential graduate students. During a break in the schedule he checked his email and began swearing. This was the reaction of most NIMR staff when they read the MRC’s Forward Investment Strategy (FIS) report. The report, by a subcommittee of the Council of the MRC – which was then our funding body – was proposing to close the Mill Hill site and open a new institute, half the size of NIMR, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Various reasons were given for the relocation, including that the NIMR building was too expensive to maintain, that its location on the outskirts of London was too remote, that we need to be adjacent to a hospital to do translational research. However, most of us at NIMR suspected that the real motivation was the pressure the MRC was under to reduce costs but maintain its support to researchers based at universities.

NIMR_under_threat

The weeks and months that followed the release of the FIS report was a turbulent and angst ridden time. There were objections, protests and demonstrations. We organised an international campaign to ‘Save NIMR’, which gained support from scientists around the world. There were hearings in Parliament, letters to newspapers and editorials in scientific journals. I forget the exact order of events, but it was a lively time for us all. To deal with the crisis a “Task Force” was set up to examine other options and, eventually, from this an idea to move NIMR to central London in partnership with UCL emerged. A site in central London was proposed and purchased by the MRC, but it turned out to be too small and the uncertainty at Mill Hill continued.

Then, sometime in 2005-2006 there was a major turning point. The London Research Institute (LRI) of CRUK, based in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, also needed a new building and a merger between NIMR and LRI was proposed to allow the construction of large enough building to accommodate us both. This would nicely kill two birds with one stone. Paul Nurse, then director of the Rockefeller in New York, became the chair of the planning committee for the new institute and the prospects for the future of NIMR’s research began to look more positive.

From this point onwards it seemed to me that things moved quickly. In addition to UCL, Imperial College, Kings College London and the Wellcome Trust backed the project, support was pledged at the highest levels of government and Paul Nurse agreed to become the director of what, at that time, was known as the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI). In 2011 it was announced that the institute would be called The Francis Crick Institute, ground was broken for the new building on the St Pancras site and we began preparing in earnest for the move and the merger. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2003, I was a junior tenure-track investigator, consequently the various twists and turns of this story has been the background for most of the time I’ve been running a lab. It’s certainly been an interesting period to live through and I’ve learned a lot by watching from the inside as these events unfolded. Despite the destabilising effect and uncertainty that the FIS caused to NIMR in 2003, I was surprised and reassured that instead of morale and cohesion crumbling, it acted as a focus to bring the labs together. It challenged us, as an institute, to explain clearly and publicly our strengths and shared purpose. It encouraged discussions and interactions between people from all corners of the institute and I expect this resulted in friendships and collaborations that might not otherwise have occurred. I think this places us in a much better position as we face the inevitable hitches that the move to the new building and establishing a new institute will bring.

It also became obvious to me that major strategic decisions can take on a life of their own. Although they have a long term consequences, decisions are often taken to solve short term problems. The people making the big decisions don’t always stick around for long and this allows others to get involved, resulting in radical changes of direction. This seems familiar given the current situation we find ourselves in the UK following the EU referendum vote. I can only hope that, just as the exciting prospect offered by the Crick came out of the turbulence and angst associated with the FIS report, that the uncertainty and bleakness I currently feel about the future of UK is turned into a brighter future. I remain to be convinced. I certainly think that if our intended destination is a brighter future, I wouldn’t start from here.

 

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