North-South tussle over site of Wellcome's £500m super-lab

By Robert Mendick

By Robert Mendick

19 December 1999

Dr Mike Dexter cuts an unassuming figure with his anorak and ambling walk. But as director of the Wellcome Trust, the world's biggest charity with an annual budget of £400m for medical research, Dexter is one of the most powerful men in the UK scientific community. He's also the man effectively at war with the Government over plans to build a £500m, state-of-the-art laboratory with a variety of uses from spotting breast cancer at a very early stage to producing smoother chocolate.

If he loses the battle it is quite possible the Trust could end up moving to France with a loss of both jobs and prestige to Britain. The charity, established in 1936 on the death of Sir Henry Wellcome, and with assets worth a staggering £12bn, has become a pivotal player in funding science projects the state sector can no longer afford.

The problem is that while the Government wishes to build the lab in Daresbury, Cheshire, on the site of an existing but now out-dated facility, the Wellcome Trust, which is putting up £110m, is determined the synchrotron, a giant X-ray machine that reveals the structure of molecules, should be sited at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) just outside Oxford.

If the Trust gets its way, the closure of the Daresbury lab would threaten 550 jobs and wreck plans to create a high-technology driven economy in the north of England. As one local Labour MP puts it: "If the synchrotron goes from the North-west, we are stuffed."

The furore could not come at a worse time for Tony Blair, who is desperately trying to persuade the country the North-South divide does not exist.

After several months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, the debate has now been hurled into the public domain. Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, despite being "minded" to build the synchrotron at Daresbury, has postponed a final decision on its location until mid-January, pending further consultation.

The Wellcome Trust accuses Mr Byers of over-ruling his own scientific advisers by plumping for Daresbury on grounds that are not science-based but influenced by social and political issues. The pro-Daresbury camp, however, says the scientific arguments are equivalent and accuses the Trust's board of governors of a South-east bias, based around the so-called "golden technology triangle" of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

All 10 trustees are based in the South-east, although a Wellcome Trust spokeswoman denies any bias, pointing out one of the governors worked in Scotland until 1995.

On Wednesday, Dr Dexter appeared before MPs on the Science and Technology Committee to accuse Mr Byers of making "a unilateral decision [that] had been taken against his own scientific advisers".

Dr Dexter said: "Clearly under these circumstances we cannot support the Secretary of State." He said the trust "would be unlikely to commit our funds if the Secretary of State chooses Daresbury," unless it is shown to be the better site on scientific grounds only.

Dr Michael Clark, a Conservative MP and chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said: "The Wellcome Trust is putting considerable pressure on the Government. They are saying, 'if you want our money, take our terms'. If they withdraw their money, it would lead to the project collapsing."

Scientists at Daresbury are fearful of a last-minute switch to RAL. Dr Graham Bushnell-Wye, a project leader at Daresbury, said: "It seems to me the Wellcome Trust are playing a game that doesn't have any of the normal rules. They can do this because they are a very rich charity. It's put the Government in a very difficult position."

Dr Bushnell-Wye, who moved from the South to take up his post, says a base in the North-west, close to traditional industrial centres, is a bonus. "If you look at the distribution of users," he says, "we are actually pretty central, with leading technology universities at Manchester and Liverpool on the doorstep."

Dr Dexter, however, says moving to RAL is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". He has a vision of creating a super campus for the world's leading bio-technology researchers. RAL is also geographically closer to the Wellcome Trust genome campus at Hinxton, near Cambridge, where scientists, backed by £205m funding from the charity, are attempting to decipher the human genetic code. The synchrotron will exploit data thrown up by the project.

The situation is made more complex because the project has a third backer - the French government, which is pledging £35m. On Wednesday, Dr Dexter claimed private correspondence showed the French clearly in favour of RAL.

All of which has left Labour MP Helen Southworth, whose Warrington South constituency borders the Daresbury site, convinced the Wellcome Trust's preference for Oxford is not based on sound scientific principles. "The main advantage Oxford has over Daresbury is not a better scientific culture," she says, "but better wine at high table."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
The RBS Six Nations trophy at the Aviva Stadium ahead of Ireland vs England
rugby
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?