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Litmus test for the loathed

A general election will decide the fate of an unpopular science policy, says Charles Arthur
Prestige. Status. National pride. Those are the sort of words that a vote-eager defence secretary might use when announcing (to pluck an example from the air) a new royal yacht; but they're also, you would hope, the sort of considerations that would go into deciding the fate of the nation's publicly held scientific expertise. You can be sure, though, that the fate of the latter will not reap the same headlines when it is announced in Parliament in the next fortnight or so.

Yet it will, arguably, affect more people - specifically, thousands of scientists and staff at Government-owned research laboratories up and down the country.

The expected announcement will be the next stage of the Government's Prior Options policy, which aims to see whether there are better ways of managing various laboratories currently funded by the public sector. Those laboratories cover a huge range of expertise - the Royal Observatories, fisheries research, buildings research, a broad range of animal and veterinary research, the Public Health Laboratory Service, and others - employing more than 20,000 people.

There's a fair chance that the decision will be more popular than last week's one about That Yacht - particularly if the decision is effectively no decision, in the form of a postponement. That would push any real action beyond the date of the general election. If the Labour Party wins that, it has already pledged not to continue with the programme.

But even if no more laboratories are moved immediately out of the public sector, figures collated by the Labour Party show that the cost of the review is already at least pounds 4.3m, including pounds 2m spent preparing the Royal Observatories for privatisation before the idea was abandoned late last year.

Adam Ingram, the shadow minister for science and technology, notes that the real cost may be higher: much of the review work has been done by full-time staff at the centres, whose time is not clocked in the same way as that of a consultant investigating it.

"There are also the pension costs of doing this, but those are unquantifiable," he said after collating the figures last week. "These are just the costs of getting ready to do it. But given the imminence of the general election, and the importance of PSREs (public sector research establishments), I think this issue would be better considered after the election."

The name of the scheme refers to the checklist against which a laboratory should, by the ideology, have been checked before continuing as part of the public sector. The options are to abolish it, privatise it or contract it out. (Management buy-outs are allowed, though not bids by the research councils which operate the laboratories.)

For a government that seems to thrive on unpopularity, the Prior Options scheme is ideal compost to heap upon the heads of those in the public sector. It really is hard to find anyone with a good word to say for it, aside from the ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Even the DTI press office wasn't able last week to find a figure for the savings produced since the first sell-offs were announced, with the sale of the Transport Research Laboratory and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist last April. The latter wasn't exactly profit-making: the buyer paid pounds 360,000 but the DTI handed over almost pounds 2m to relieve the Government of liabilities linked to disentangling it from the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, which handles various physical standards. (That was handed over to private management in July 1995.)

By contrast, it's hard to pick up a science paper without coming across someone who is unhappy about Prior Options. Last year the Royal Society issued a statement criticising the scheme on four key points, notably that "care is needed to ensure that Prior Options does not damage the highly successful collaboration that has built up between universities and research council institutes, and that repeated reviews questioning the continued existence of public sector research establishments ... [might] adversely affect efficiency and productivity."

Nor does the scheme have a fan in Derek Roberts, a former GEC manager who is now provost of University College, London, and president this year of the British Association. He, like many critics, objects that the principle of selling off national expertise and putting it into the private sector doesn't allow for the swings and roundabouts of the economic cycle.

"If you privatise something and sell it off," he says, "then by definition it will go through bad periods without particular hazards, when nothing much needs investigating. The whole thing could be reduced in scale, or closed. Then, three weeks later, we have a disaster and need it again, at full strength or more."

Examples are not hard to think of: the BSE crisis (and last March's announcement of a putative link with the human disease CJD), and the E coli outbreak in Scotland, come to mind.

The independence of such research establishments is also important. John Mulvey, of the pressure group Save British Science, comments: "Their independence and disinterestedness must be beyond question. But in the private sector that's not the case. We have seen how tobacco companies have suppressed research they funded but whose results they haven't liked."

The Buildings Research Establishment (BRE) is the next in line to be privatised. Isn't it surprising to find Professor Roberts leading one of the two bidders left in last week's race for it?

Not so, he replies. "I think most of the disposals are bad. But we have created a trust with about 100 companies in the construction industry because we believe that this way, training and research expertise will be retained in the BRE." The individual companies can also feel confident that any research is impartial.

"The maximum exposure is pounds 1, which I provided out of my pocket. The idea isn't to take risks - banks can take risks. It's a stupid policy, but if that's the policy then that's what we have to do." All the same, he says, "The whole thing is being pursued on a ridiculous timescale." His consortium's bid went in last Monday, with the choice due last Friday. (The other bidder is a management buy-out backed by the venture capital firm 3i.) "The final disposal terms will be negotiated by the end of February, which is ludicrous."

Not that anyone said government policies had to make sense - except when there's an election looming.