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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works