Science: Down-to-earth lab in marketplace limbo

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MICHAEL HESELTINE, the President of the Board of Trade, wants to close Warren Spring, the Government's premier centre of applied environmental research, to save a lot of money rather quickly. The news leaked out just before this week's publication of William Waldegrave's White Paper on Science and Technology.

Critics say that there could be no better demonstration of the average cabinet minister's fundamental lack of interest in the future of British science. The laboratory pays its way and is not a drain on the taxpayer. The 280 staff have an international reputation. But most of them, it seems, do not have a future.

Warren Spring does not do high science: instead of struggling for insights into global warming or the ozone layer, it sorts - quite literally - through mounds of household garbage, collects and collates reams of statistics and monitors air pollution. It is a thoroughly applied sort of place, studying ways of cleaning contaminated soil and turning industrial wastes into useful raw materials.

Last year, Mr Heseltine's predecessor at the Department of Trade and Industry, Peter Lilley, confirmed that Warren Spring would be moving out of its dilapidated laboratories and offices near Stevenage, Hertfordshire, into new premises nearby at Welwyn Garden City. Its neighbour, the drugs giant Glaxo, was to expand on to the old site and pay the DTI pounds 25m, enough to fund most of the cost of Warren Spring's purpose- built new home.

Architects were appointed, the site cleared, preparatory work started - then Mr Heseltine struck. PA Consulting, a leading management consultancy, was asked to reappraise the plans and earlier this month gave Mr Heseltine a verbal report. Immediately afterwards, he told three senior executives from Warren Spring, including the chief executive, Doug Cormack, that he was 'minded' to accept PA's recommendations, which involved the loss of about 200 jobs.

The consultants suggested that about 90 staff working in the laboratory's 'key business centres' should be transferred to the UK Atomic Energy Authority's Harwell Laboratory, in Oxfordshire,which does similar work to Warren Spring. The future of the state- owned UKAEA is also uncertain. It has shed thousands of jobs in the past few years, and may soon be privatised in whole or part. Moving the most marketable bits of Warren Spring to Harwell might render that laboratory more attractive to prospective purchasers.

The Warren Spring executives returned to Stevenage, and told their staff about Mr Hesetline's views. IPMS, the civil service union which represents most of them, has been campaigning strongly against closure ever since.

The DTI refuses to comment on the meeting with the Warren Spring executives, or the existence of PA Consulting's rapid inquiry, and stoutly denies that any decision has been made. Mr Cormack has been told not to say anything different.

Sources at Warren Spring say PA Consulting has competed with the laboratory for several government research contracts, and it seems hardly fair that it should sit in judgement on commercial rivals.

News of Mr Heseltine's thinking has alarmed senior officials at the Department of the Environment, who were not consulted. Although the DTI is responsible for Warren Spring, about 40 per cent of its income comes from DoE research contracts, more than from any other government department or the private sector. This research may cost the taxpayer rather more if it is switched to private laboratories and universities or to Harwell, because the DoE would have to start paying VAT on the contracts.

Last week, the respected Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution published a report on municipal waste incinerators. Its reference section cites Warren Spring's work dozens of times. Professor Sir Geoffrey Allen, a chemist and commission member, said: 'We value the work Warren Spring does and we're concerned about its future.'

The week before Mr Heseltine met PA Consulting and the Warren Spring executives, he announced reviews of all five of the DTI's laboratories: the National Engineering Laboratory, the National Physical Laboratory, the Laboratory of the Government Chemist and the National Weights and Measures Laboratory, as well as Warren Spring. The latter will be reviewed first, using independent consultants that the DTI has yet to name. The reviews will consider 'privatisation or rationalisation', the DTI said. All the laboratories, apart from weights and measures, are executive agencies, expected to operate on a business footing. But the Government wants to go further and place some, or all of them in the private sector.

The industries and government departments that are customers of these laboratories acknowledge their value. The prime attraction is that their laboratories' 2,000 staff provide the closest British industry comes to independent advice on a gamut of new technologies, from biological sensing to engineering technology and forensic analysis. Private consultancies will test new technologies, too. They might examine a new kind of catalytic converter, perhaps. But such consultancies, if expert in the field, are very likely to be working for valuable clients already producing catalytic converters. These may not like to hear their consultants singing the praises of a rival. The DTI laboratories also provide an internationally recognised testing service. This will certify that new products meet agreed standards, which can give British manufacturers a competitive edge.

The laboratories, which have been described as a kind of consumers' association for industry, generate a combined income of more than pounds 100m, and it is this that has preoccupied the Government in assessing their worth, rather than how the nation benefits.