US bids for top British science centre

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The Independent Online
American bidders are topping the list of potential buyers as the Government prepares to sell off two of Britain's leading centres for industrial science and technology.

Two large American groups are among the potential buyers of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, west London

The Department of Trade and Industry is considering five bids, including one from a group led by EDS Scicon, the US software and services giant, and another from a consortium headed by Brown and Root, a leading US engineering conractor.

The US bidders are in competition with the nuclear engineering division of Rolls Royce and with WS Atkins, one of the UK's major civil engineering specialists. The fifth bidder is thought to be Serco, which has operating links with scientific establishments in the UK.

The sale to foreign firms of a national asset such as the NPL would be certain to provoke controversy. The laboratory works closely with government and industry in developing standards - for example in the development of safety-critical software and in measurement.

Total employment is approximately 750 people - many of them highly-qualified scientists and technical staff - with a turnover of £50m in 1993/94.

The DTI, which in the past has spent about £40m a year at the NPL, is expected to guarantee five years of work for the new owners. This would probably amount to £30m a year, payable on a project by project basis.

As a safeguard for the laboratory as a whole, however, the DTI is likely to hold back some of the payment pending as assessment over time of how the new operators are running the overall enterprise.

There has been speculation that the sale of the laboratories could lead to the loss of about 300 specialist jobs. The Government is expected to take into account the employment plans of the bidders in drawing up a shortlist. The DTI is at working on a shortlist of bidders and the sale is expected to be complete by the end of June.

It has emerged that the Government may also dispose of the Laboratory of the Government Chemist through a trade sale.

Originally the LGC, which is also based in Teddington, was to be established as a non-profit distributing organisation but the DTI now appears to be considering other options. The LGC has a staff of just over 300 and a turnover of £16m.

Progress is also continuing with the sale of the National Engineering Laboratory at East Kilbride.

The NEL carries out seismic and structural testing and is a source of expertise in industrial computing and renewable energy.