Last December, the Faculty of Medicine announced that they were to build a new Institute of Infection within the Sir Alexander Fleming building (SAF). However, in order to make room for this, the decision was made to move the existing MDLs out of SAF, into the much older Royal College of Science (RCS) building next door. The shocking announcement brought forth a wave of criticism and concern from students unaware that such a decision was being considered – and a couple months in, questions still remain about what this decision truly means for ICSM.
The concern surrounding the relocation of the MDLs doesn’t lie so much in anyone’s extreme attachment to the physical lab spaces, but rather in the many implications that the decision itself – as well as the way in which it was conducted – allude to. The decision was made by Faculty alone and no student opinion or consult was sought; not even the ICSM Students’ Union were informed of the decision prior to its confirmation. This rings remarkably similar to the surprising decision announced in 2019 to sell our St Mary’s Hospital medical school building, which, again, was made with zero student input and resulted in widespread demands for increased transparency and consideration of the student voice. This itself followed at least another four decisions taken without student involvement in recent history, including the move of medical student sports from Heston to Harlington and the sale of the Teddington sports ground. This apparent trend, and its subsequent implication that the student voice may not be so valued, is what makes the decision on the MDLs greater than the relocation of a few rooms.
Of course, it is important to consider what went into the making of such a decision. Unfortunately, there has been little explanation on the matter – bar an email statement announcing the decision – but it is undoubtable, considering the current pandemic, that a Research Institute of Infection is incredibly important. However, what is less obvious thus far is why this particular move was the best decision for every party involved. It is understandable that Faculty have a responsibility to the public and to research, but they also have a responsibility – perhaps even a greater responsibility – to the smaller, more local community of students whom they are more directly expected to support and lead. Considering that the group most impacted by the decision is the ICSM community, it is both interesting and concerning that they were never consulted prior to its confirmation; how do you know with certainty you are doing right by your community, if you don’t involve and hear from them first?
Further concerns also exist around the suitability of RCS as an appropriate site for ICSM. The Gazette spoke to students who have used the building to get a better understanding of what the new location is like. According to a Design Engineering PhD student currently using the building, RCS as it stands is architecturally very small (having previously only supported a small number of students), lacks any form of communal space, and has very limited disability access. The narrow entrance leads you directly onto a landing where your only options are to immediately go up or down a flight of stairs, and, currently, there is only one toilet per floor and poor heating in the building. Although Faculty have promised to refurbish the space, it is uncertain what they plan to change, and architectural constraints make it difficult to determine just how much they can feasibly do.
Additionally, students from courses such as Biochemistry have further reiterated concerns raised by ICSM students, specifically touching on the suspected inconvenience when moving between buildings, as well as the inevitable dilution of the student community in SAF from the high influx of new research staff moving through the building. Unfortunately, it remains difficult as it stands to see the student presence fairly reflected in this decision, and only the future will reveal just how carefully the ICSM community was valued in this move. However, for now, one thing seems clear; whilst the RCS may work as a limited-use lab site, it could never be the hub of ICSM, and it will never be another SAF.
To be clear, no plans or future projects have yet been announced to make any other moves out of SAF. However, the lack of transparency, brewing mistrust between students and faculty, the existing trend of faculty-led decisions involving zero student consult, and lack of ability to say with certainty that something like this will not happen again, leaves the possibility of further relocations out of SAF worryingly real.
Following the decision, Faculty have been open to feedback from students and are soon to hold a live event on Monday, giving you a chance to share your thoughts. Whilst you cannot do anything about the decision itself, what you can do is vocalise your opinions and concerns and help shape the outcome moving forward. If you would like your voice heard on the matter, be sure you attend the ‘Vision for Medicine’ live event which takes place this Monday 22nd February 2021 at 6pm and help make sure that future decisions about you, are never again, made without you.