Government to privatise science labs: Sale of three national research centres could mean loss of hundreds of jobs

THE Government will disclose plans this week to privatise three important sources of scientific expertise. The proposals are likely to lead to the loss of hundreds of highly skilled jobs and will almost certainly spark a political outcry.

The National Engineering Laboratory at East Kilbride, the Laboratory of the Government Chemist and the National Physical Laboratory, both at Teddington, are all to be removed from the public sector.

The Government is believed to have drawn up plans under which the NEL, which has a staff of almost 300 scientists and engineers, would be sold next year.

The National Physical Laboratory, employing 700 people including more than 500 scientists, is expected to be handed over within months to private sector management with a view to privatisation as soon as possible.

The Laboratory of the Government Chemist, with 330 staff, is to be set up initially as a company limited by government guarantee although it is thought that ministers have not ruled out an outright sale.

All three laboratories, which come under the control of the Department of Trade and Industry, are likely to undergo considerable restructuring before privatisation.

It is also expected that the DTI will introduce sharp cuts in its spending with all the laboratories, which some sources believe could be more damaging to the nation's scientific base than privatisation. The DTI spends about pounds 60m at the three laboratories, of which more than pounds 40m is spent at the National Physical Laboratory.

There is speculation that the expected drop in the overall budget, coupled with restructuring, could result in the loss of 300 skilled jobs.

The plans for privatisation follow a study on behalf of the DTI by consultants KPMG Peat Marwick.

The consultants also looked at the National Weights and Measures Laboratory but this is not thought to be included in the privatisation proposals.

Staff and management at the centres are divided over privatisation.

The National Physical Laboratory has responsibility for measurement standards, playing a vital role for government and industry.

The NPL had a turnover of almost pounds 50m in the year to 31 March 1993 and returned a small surplus to the Treasury. It has already cut 100 jobs over the past two years.

The National Engineering laboratory carries out structural and seismic testing, advanced computing and research into renewable energy.

It also has responsibility for flow standards, which are fundamental to the use of Britain's North Sea reserves. The Laboratory of the Government Chemist, which has for the past three years achieved its target of covering its full costs from income generated, provides services and advice on analytical chemistry to the Government and business.

It plays an important role in law enforcement, public health, consumer protection and the environment.

(Photograph omitted)

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