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Merck In London – A Hub, or Not?

News comes today that Merck is going to put in a new research site in London. I’m not sure if anyone saw that coming – their previous UK research site is long gone, and seems now to be turning into housing developments. And I’m sure that the government is very happy to announce this sort of thing, since the European Medicines Agency just announced that they’re moving to Amsterdam in the wake of the Brexit process.

This will be an expensive undertaking, since it mentions the word “London”. It is interesting, though, that it mentions that word instead of “Cambridge”, which is where a lot of money has poured into biopharma facilities the last few years. That brings up a larger question: all the stories about this move mention the supposed London-Oxford-Cambridge “hub”, but I have to wonder about that a bit. Aren’t those rather spread out for a hub? These seem to me to be three very distinct areas, culturally, and it seems a bit strange (from an outside observer) to try to make them all part of one bigger thing.

Then there’s the physical aspect. If you lose a job in one of those three locations, will you have to move in order to realistically take a new position in another? I’ve made that exact triangular trip, as has many an academically- or scientifically-inclined visitor to the UK, and I would not necessarily wish to commute from one to the other on a daily basis. Because of London’s centrality, the worst of the commutes would probably be between Oxford and Cambridge, and the classic way of splitting the difference between those two is what, Milton Keynes?

I realize that the same objections can be raised to some of the Bay Area locations here in the US, both in biopharma and in the hardware/software fields. Point taken; the commutes out there can be brutal. Berkeley/San Jose is probably just as time-consuming a regular trip as London/Oxford, but to outside observers, Berkeley and San Jose both qualify as “Bay Area”. So, any thoughts from the UK readership? Is Oxford/Cambridge/London a “thing”, or is it more “aspirational” as a coherent hub?

43 comments on “Merck In London – A Hub, or Not?”

  1. John Dallman says:

    There are quite a few people who commute from Oxford or Cambridge to London daily, and there are good train services for that. Commuting between Oxford and Cambridge, in comparison, would be really hard.

    1. dearieme says:

      Every year or so the newspapers carry fantasy articles about reinstating the old Oxford-Cambridge railway line.

      A venture at running regular flights failed a few years ago.

  2. AR says:

    Oxford-London or Cam-London is totally doable even as a commute. OX-CAM not so much.

  3. ex-Mercker says:

    Think this has been well over-hyped by the government wanting to make a success of Brexit. Merck sold their Hoddesdon (process chemistry) site to Pharmaron a while back, but rents a building from them where MSD staff still work, and is the company’s UK HQ. These staff are going to relocate to London, most likely King’s Cross (where MSD already have offices) and near the Crick. How many actual new positions there will be remains to be seen.

    Regarding the Golden triangle, Oxford to Cambridge as a daily commute would be unworkable. Both Cambridge and Oxford to London would be expensive, but doable.

  4. Chris Swain says:

    Oxford, Cambridge and London is now regularly referred to as the “golden triangle” and there are certainly a number of sci-tech companies setting up shop, not just Pharma. As other have said getting to/from London is fine, Cambridge to Oxford much less so. There is a group working on this but things seem to be progressing very slowly. The science parks around Cambridge seem to be booming with lots of new buildings going up, unfortunately housing and infrastructure don’t seem to be keeping up.

  5. AP says:

    I agree with the above. This appears to be more Government spin on Brexit rather than hard and fast investment into UK pharma. Two announcements in one day is too much of a coincidence!

  6. Hap says:

    I though Cambridge rents had gotten rather high, and London…duh. I don’t know what Oxford rents are, but none of this sounds like it’s going to be all that fun for anyone other than the top people to pay for.

    1. Ian Malone says:

      Oxford rents are among the highest in the country. Cambridge used to be a bit behind, but climbing now. Both commutes into London are very crowded, going the other direction not so bad. Where in London is an important question, if the location is near the respective terminal then the train journey is under an hour for Cambridge and 1:30 for Oxford, but travelling across the city can easily add 45 minutes.

  7. Anon says:

    Plenty people commute daily from Cambridge to work in London, though it takes 60-90 min depending on where in London.

    1. Anon says:

      PS. Also 60-90min from Oxford to London, but for some reason it takes 10 hours to commute from Oxford to Cambridge.

      1. Anon says:

        …depending on congestion on the horse-and-cart track.

        1. radiochemist says:

          I always think of it as more of a golden set square rather than a golden triangle. A commute from to Cambridge or Oxford from Milton Keynes would be pretty tough too although I’m sure some people will be doing it.

        2. dearieme says:

          The Cambridge-Oxford road has been improved dramatically in the last few years. But you are still likely to join near-stationary traffic as you get close to Oxford.

  8. johnnyboy says:

    This is all a bit puzzling to me (I’m Cambridge UK based). I don’t understand how they would be able to properly staff a research centre in London (press I read mentioned 950 positions), at the bargain-basement salaries at which UK scientists are paid. Sure there’s plenty of academic PhD/post-doc level young’uns in the London area who’d be available for a bit of industry action, but the backbone scientists and investigators would all have to commute from far outside the city. My wife did the commute from south of Cambridge to central London for a while – 1h30 trip each way in crowded, frequently delayed trains (and that’s the ‘good’ train line into London), at a cost of £5000/yr for an annual rail pass – she stopped as soon as she could. Someone paid a decent salary could probably handle the hassle, but I would think that at the £30-50K levels paid to scientists, people would think twice before doing that on a permanent basis – and if they did, they’d then spend a lot of time regretting the decision and moving elsewhere as soon as they had a chance.
    But then again I’m from North American, and I’m constantly surprised at the level of bad treatment that UK scientists can take…
    Oh and the so-called London-Camb-Oxford ‘hub’ ? It makes about as much sense as talking about the ‘ STEM field’.

    1. Dionysius Rex says:

      Graduate starting salary with Evotec 15,500 GBP……utterly, utterly pathetic.

      1. Ashley Jarvis says:

        #Dionysius Rex,
        Just to put the record straight, the Evotec ad you reference is actually for an undergraduate placement student – this is not a graduate starting salary. Our starting salaries are competitive in the market, and are benchmarked internally and externally. On a related note, we are actively seeking talented chemistry graduates and postgraduates for our Oxfordshire site:

        1. JB says:

          “Resilient to pressure with flexibility to adapt to changing demands”
          put up and shut up? All for less salary than an Aldi supermarket trainee.
          Graduate intern is not the same thing as a placement student.
          Why didn’t the ad specify “placement student” no they want a graduate at poverty wage levels.

  9. Mister B. says:

    I’ve been for a year in Stevenage (@GSK), halfway between London and Cambridge. Many of my colleagues commuted from London. (30 – 40 mins train)

    What I recall now is the massive delays on a regular basis, the cost in time, money and tiredness of this choice.

    If numbers are correct, 950 chemists / scientists require quite some space and some amount of dangerous chemicals, biologicals of some sort. How is that possible to handle in the middle of London ?

    1. chops says:

      Not quite that number of people, but both UCL and Imperial College manage to handle this ok in central London with fairly large volumes of solvents/reagents for the chemistry and chem eng departments

      1. A Nonny Mouse says:

        There is Imperial’s White City campus which they might want to fill. There are several floors available for larger companies.

        I was quoted £79/sq ft rental for the “start up” units (min £50K/pa) which was slightly OTT for me.

      2. Miles says:

        Um, I can tell you how, by playing fast and loose with “crown immunity” and replacing the lead roofing around the fume hood outlets every year. And don’t ask about the spillages in the trolley dash along the basement tunnel over to the hospital.

  10. Petros says:

    One or two of the reports mention about 190 scientists (i.e. R&D). The 950 figure is I assume all staff- marketing, clinical etc. If located near the Crick it will be very easy access for anyone commuting in from the Cambridge direction.

    Interesting timing given that the EMA is about to move from London to Amsterdam but good news for the industry in the UK.

  11. Peter Kenny says:

    While I’ll be glad to see the return of Merck to UK, it does seem a rather bizarre decision given that Brexit is looming and those charged with making it happen appear to be without a clue. I think companies will still be able to recruit staff from within the EU (and indeed from outside the EU) after Brexit, there will be an additional bureaucratic burden. A Labour government would be likely to be business-unfriendly.

    It used to be said that one could travel from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving land belonging to one of the St John’s Colleges and, apparently there are plans for a rail link. However I think the distances and likely travel times are likely to be too large and long for the three cities to function as a hub. Commuting by rail in UK is not only unpleasant but is also expensive (I’m guessing that annual rail ticket between Oxford and London would cost about £5000).

    1. Some idiot says:

      Trinity, as I recall, not St Johns… but I still don’t know whether or not it is apocryphal…! 🙂

      1. Peter Kenny says:

        In the case of Oxford, I think it would have to be St Johns…

    2. John Delaney says:

      Elon Musk and his Hype-rloop to the rescue!

    3. anoano says:

      They did not leave UK. They have an office in London for a while now, and their current HQ is just North of London, in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. What is not known is what will they get in return from the government to move to London.

  12. Me says:

    Oxford-Cambridge-London is a ‘thing’ insofar as the govt are trying to sell the UK as a global tech hub. As a workable, interchangeable area for careers, no it isn’t.

    IMO this is alot like all the other govt initiatives: great for grabbing headlines, but the moment the subsidies run out, MSD will be out the door quicker than you can say ‘Redundancy Consultation’.

  13. London biotech says:

    Geographically of course London is the hub and Oxford/Cambridge are the spokes. The UK biopharma community is small enough to be well connected over that area which is why the Golden Triangle does feel like something tangible for those in it.

    There are strong parallels between London and NY in that they both have large numbers of top academic researchers, leading physicians/trials units and lots of capital. Just not connected by biopharma companies.

    If the ascendancy of Cambridge (MA) tells us anything it’s that biopharma wants to be in the centre of the action and high real estate costs are not going to change that. I would be surprised if Merck is the only one making the move to a compact, externally oriented outfit in London. Lots happening in King’s Cross around the Crick Institute but also in west London where Imperial College are re-developing 23 acres for both faculty and industry.

  14. Diver Dude says:

    It does seem a very strange decision by MSD (used in Europe to distinguish it from Merck KgA). I imagine the bribes will have been very heavy. But I have lived and worked in all 3 locations and the Oxford to Cambridge commute would definitely be the worst (although the small roads areally fun to drive). But there is a strong local push to reconnect the “Varsity Line” between the two and the countryside in between is very beautiful indeed. If it were me, I’d be looking at Buckingham or Aylesbury rather than MK… 🙂

    1. Flitwick Chemist says:

      Near MK to Cambridge is doable – I do the run everyday in an hour. MK to Oxford – forget it especially since most Science Parks are considerably south of Oxford – e..g. Abingdon.

  15. Calvin says:

    So the “Golden Triangle” is real and I think it’s fair to say that the bulk of the biotech/pharma sector is within the triangle. As many have said Oxford/Cambridge-London is fairly easy (if expensive) but the journey between Oxford and Cambridge is hard. However, it’s fairly unusual to build industrial biotech/pharma labs in central London. In fact, there are very few biotech companies in London at all, certainly very few with “wet” labs. 10 years ago the company I was at was virtually the only London biotech with wet labs; outside of the universities I think we might have had the only chemistry fume hoods in London. There is also not much in the way of incubator space. It’s not the cost per se, it’s just that most developers can make way more money out of “exclusive, luxury flats”. But I think there is still a need to incubator space in central London. I do believe that a number of organisations have looked at this but there’s still not much (QMB, and Imperial spring to mind). The lab space is essentially locked up by the universities. I’d guess that MSD will end up in KingsX since there’s space and it’s close to UCL/Crick/Wellcome etc.That said, I still remain to be convinced that there’s gold to be found in “golden triangle” so we shall see whether MSD actually get anything out of this.

    1. j says:

      All I can say is that Roger P. must REALLY like London….after all, he made it clear early in his tenure that he didn’t like Kenilworth and, consequently, R&D at that site has all but disappeared (like the rest of MRL R&D in New Jersey). Such a crime….

  16. ajp says:

    It’s certainly more doable to commute into London if the site is indeed near King’s Cross. All they’d have to do to make it affordable is to pay their people what their counterparts in Boston are making (yes, the UK salaries really are that much lower).

  17. Steph says:

    So much for the northern powerhouse……

  18. Druid says:

    How many companies and sites make a “hub”? I know of scientists who left a job in the Cambridge area to take another job in that area, but I doubt if that happens much in London or the Oxford area – there just aren’t enough biotech companies.

  19. Cytirps says:

    It makes sense that Merck is now more a real estate/construction company

  20. Another Ex-Mercker says:

    It always amused me that Terlings Park (the old MSD research site) used to proudly announce that it was located “in Cambridge-Oxford-London triangle”.

    The word “Harlow” was never mentioned, probably for good reason.

  21. John Campbell says:

    It’s a puzzle to me how any young scientist can afford to live in Oxford, Cambridge or London. Rail travel Oxford – London and Cambridge – London is one if expensive but getting to those stations from your house in the sticks is something else again. Milton Keynes is more affordable but is over an hour by car from Oxford or Cambridge.
    Not much of a hub in my view.

  22. WildCation says:

    I know plenty of people who live in Cambridge and commute to London or vice versa. It’s anywhere from a 45 minute to 2 hour journey depending on the route (King’s Cross or Liverpool Street) and whether it is a direct or local train. At the faster end, it’s actually quicker to get from London to Cambridge than it is for me to get to Cambridge (and I live close to halfway between the two).

    Definitely manageable, but very very expensive – £4,780/year for just the train, £6084/year if you want a London travelcard too.

  23. Chemist turned Banker says:

    Funny to hear “Golden Triangle” touted as phrase of the moment. I first heard it uttered by an academic at Imperial in my first year. In 1993.

    Oxford-Cambridge is not a commute. It is an alternative to a custodial sentence. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but London-Cambridge is very doable, as AstraZeneca demonstrates.

  24. Scott says:

    So, what I’m hearing is that the way to commute from Oxford to Cambridge is via London, and about a 3 hour rail trip…

    Man, I got spoiled by the Japanese railroads and Tokyo Metro…

  25. patently says:

    I used to work in Oxford, and had regular trips to Cambridge and London. If you’re based somewhere between Jn22 and Jn 17 on the M25 and are happy to drive to Oxford/Cambridge, then you’re in commuting reach of all three. I did that Oxford commute daily for about 9 years.

    Doing all three from one place via public transport is going to be impossible unless you’re living in central London, imho.

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