If it ain't broke, sell it

What do you get for producing great results in a government-funded research institute? Privatised, says Charles Arthur
It might sound like good news that a British institution 50 per cent funded by the Government has just been declared to be doing some of the best research in biological sciences in the country - better than any university, by the yardstick used.

Yet to some at the Babraham Institute, in Cambridge, the result announced last week was not unalloyed good news. In their battle against further cuts in their government funding, they fear that this news could be just what those pushing for privatisation want.

The findings came in the latest data from the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), an independent Philadelphia-based organisation which does one core activity: it looks at all the scientific papers published all over the world, and notes which papers they cite, and in turn which future papers cite the original.

This so-called "citation index" has rapidly become the ruler against which any paper is measured, the quickest way to find out which areas of research are buzzing, and which authors and papers within those fields are hottest. Any scientist with even a hint of vanity follows their paper's position in the ISI Index with the breathless enthusiasm of a would-be pop star scanning the charts for signs of their latest single.

Thus Richard Dyer, head of the Babraham Institute, could be forgiven for feeling a warm glow of satisfaction when the latest ISI Index showed that papers in the field of biological sciences published by scientists at the Babraham were more frequently cited than any British university's. In fact, the institute came second only to the well-known Molecular Biology Laboratory, also in Cambridge, which is funded by the Medical Research Council.

The Babraham is slightly different. It specialises in the life sciences, and particularly in the fields of "cell signalling" - the process by which cells communicate chemically - and animal development and the recognition mechanisms at cellular level that are essential for life.

This is done by looking at the "pathways" between cells - usually in pigs and mice. When signalling goes wrong, the effect can be cancerous; so there are implications for human disease and their control. The work ultimately has applications in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and biomedicine. But the Institute's work is more in the nature of basic research. The most cited Babraham paper, from Nature in 1984, discussed a cell signal messenger called inositol triphosphate. Against the "expected" 517 citations, it received 5.028. A 1993 Babraham paper on a similar topic received 1,364 citations, rather than the expected 160.

Officially, the 450-strong institute is a registered charity: but it receives underpinning support from the Government via the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which provides 56 per cent of its pounds 15m funding. Other funding comes from private-sector work.

But under the Government's "Prior Options" scheme, any public-sector research establishment is under increasing scrutiny to see whether its work is needed. If it is, the next question is whether the public sector needs to fund that work - that is, should the establishment be privatised. Other options are merger with another organisation or a different mode of management.

The Prior Options system has a Thatcherite ring to it - the option of leaving well alone doesn't seem to be on the list. But that is exactly what Dr Dyer thinks should be done. "We are achieving strong success with our research, we have ambitious plans for the future, and any unnecessary upheaval will be a distraction with the potential to cause much damage to our performance."

The ISI's independent assessment might also seem to imply that the Babraham is doing fine with the system as it is. "We are pleased with the ISI results, but not complacent," says Dr Dyer. There is much more the institute can do, he says - but only if the Government continues its underpinning support.

The trouble is, according to one source at the institute, that the ISI result can be used as fuel by either side - both Dr Dyer's, and the would- be privatisers. Doing well according to ISI's measurement could be taken to mean that the institute has the ideal platform to be launched entirely into the commercial world: by pointing to its past successes, and especially its ISI position, the management could get industrial backing to fund their work.

But what if the ISI citation-meter had shown that the institute was far down the ratings? "They would then say we ought to be privatised because we're not providing value for money," says the source. Dr Dyer comments, "The ISI results show the current arrangements for the institute are a highly effective way to derive excellent value for public money spent on science."

But with Prior Options around, nothing is safe. It may be that the approaching election will simplify matters. The Labour Party, at least, has pledged to stop any privatisation of public research laboratories. Perhaps then the Babraham's staff will be able to breathe a little easier - and get on with their world-beating work.