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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
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

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain