December 4, 2013 12:02 am

Building on London’s scientific tradition

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London has been a powerhouse of science and technology for more than a century, from medicine in its teaching hospitals to physical sciences and engineering in its universities. The capital’s global reputation for research has recently grown further, as institutions such as Imperial College and University College London invest in new facilities and move closer to the top of the world academic rankings.

“London is already a teeming hive of scientific activity,” says Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor, who is responsible for science policy. “We have four of the top 40 universities in the world and all of our universities are going through an unprecedented period of expansion. But we have decided to make further growth in London’s science economy one of our main aims.” His boss, mayor Boris Johnson, told the BioIndustry Association recently that London could become “the leading scientific city on the planet”.

The standard-bearer of London’s scientific ambitions is the Francis Crick Institute near King’s Cross, named after the scientist who discovered the double helix structure of DNA with James Watson in 1953. It is the biggest biomedical research centre under construction in the world, funded by a £650m investment from the government’s Medical Research Council, two charities (Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust) and three universities (Imperial, UCL and King’s College London).

The Crick will open in 2015 behind the British Library, on the edge of the great regeneration zone north of St Pancras and King’s Cross stations. When it is fully operational, the institute will employ 1,500 staff, including 1,250 scientists, with an operating budget of over £100m a year. Its interdisciplinary work will cover biomedicine on a broad front, to help scientists understand why disease develops and to find new ways of preventing and treating cancer, heart disease and stroke, infections and neurodegenerative diseases.

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The chief executive of the Institute is Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, who is also president of the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of sciences. He gives several reasons why London is the right place for a UK national biomedical research institute. They include: the breadth of expertise in its universities that can be drawn on to support an ambitious interdisciplinary research agenda; the range of patients from varied genetic and ethnic backgrounds being treated in London’s hospitals; the appeal of London for young scientists around the world who love the idea of working in an exciting global city (despite its high prices); and the financial, entrepreneurial and legal expertise available in the UK capital for those wishing to commercialise research.

“It’s a national institute which will serve the national biomedical research endeavour,” Sir Paul says. “We see ourselves with a role to support other places throughout the UK. It would be very difficult to do that if we were placed somewhere else, because it would automatically become local if it was in Birmingham or Edinburgh or Manchester, say. In London it can serve the national agenda much more straightforwardly.”

Even more ambitious than the Crick in the long run is the Imperial West campus that Imperial College is establishing on 25 acres of derelict land at White City, about three miles from its home in South Kensington. Its first phase, a £150m research and translation hub, is under construction with funding from the UK government, Voreda Capital (a property finance company) and Imperial itself. Eventually the Imperial West site will need £3bn in capital investment to reach its full potential, says Professor David Gann, vice-president for innovation and development.

“Our plans are to develop a campus for innovation at a scale we could not possibly do [on our South Kensington site] and make that a hub for collaboration and developing ideas to market on a scale that has not been seen in Europe before,” he says.

The college’s long-term vision is for Imperial West “to develop in a series of phases [over perhaps two decades] rather than one prescriptive master plan, maximising our ability to adapt to changes in science, innovation, research and business”. Imperial is learning lessons from comparable US initiatives such as Cornell’s new tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kendall Square and the University of California San Francisco’s Mission Bay.

UCL, Imperial’s great rival, wants to do something similar in east London but attempts to find a suitable site for a £1bn second campus have not yet succeeded. The first location it explored, Carpenters Estate in Stratford, was dropped this year because of opposition from residents. An option being explored is the Olympic Park, though this may not be big enough to meet UCL’s full ambitions.

People who have compared London with the great US science clusters, particularly around Boston and San Francisco, say its weakest point, when it comes to future scientific development, is poor access to capital to build companies out of lab discoveries. “We don’t have a strong culture in this city of risk capital going into science,” says Mr Malthouse. “We are finding more and more that discoveries made here are being exploited elsewhere. In Boston and San Francisco, hungry risk capital is hanging around looking for opportunities. We need to energise private capital here, too.”

If that problem can be overcome, the scientific outlook for London really will be bright.

“I believe that London has a golden opportunity to be the premier destination in the world for higher education and, within that context, it can also become pre-eminent in biomedicine, health and life sciences,” says Michael Arthur, UCL provost.

“This won’t be easy and it will take time, but over the next 20 to 30 years, we should be able to displace Boston from the top slot. Ambitious? Certainly, but in my view achievable.”

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