Yes, it hurts. Yes, it works

Last week's science page criticised the Government's policy of selling research laboratories to the private sector. Ian Taylor, minister for science and technology, writes in its defence

Scrutiny, examination, change. These are the sort of words that may make us all feel uncomfortable. They can challenge our traditional way of doing things, prompt us to work out our real objectives, and sometimes lead us towards better working habits. Although disturbing, the scrutiny process often brings rewards, and gives a new sense of direction.

It is fair to say that the 37 public-sector research establishments which have recently been under the government's Prior Options Review spotlight have found the process both disturbing and challenging. But as minister in charge of the process - which has just been formally completed - I am confident that the overall outcome will be a more efficient set of organisations, with a clear view of where they are going and who their key customers are. Our science base will benefit from the exercise.

As reported last Wednesday, my ministerial colleagues and I have just announced the remaining 28 decisions on the scientific bodies reviewed during 1996. For the establishments scrutinised under the full programme, the taxpayer contributes more than pounds 690m each year to sustain their current work. That is more than 10 per cent of the total government expenditure on research and development. It is only right that the Government should make sure this money is spent effectively. The cost of undertaking the reviews has been small by comparison.

Budget-holding ministers are not the only ones who can see the benefits of Prior Options reviews. One "parent" body for three of the laboratories - the Natural Environment Research Council - recently endorsed the need for periodic reviews, saying to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that they "provide a valuable insight into the structure and operation of establishments, and challenge internal thinking" and "give a further opportunity to assess the customer-contractor relationship".

There has been a variety of outcomes from the reviews conducted on a case-by-case basis, which should reassure those who have accused the Government of seeking private sector solutions regardless of the nature of the establishments and their work. Many will remain in the public sector, though with emphasis on managerial reforms to improve efficiency.

As for Charles Arthur's comments [actually those of John Mulvey of Save British Science - CA] on this page last week, we have indeed given appropriate weight to issues such as impartiality and reliability of scientific advice, as well as the money-related factors.

Staff at the laboratories will be pleased that the results are now out in the open. I was concerned to minimise the length of time taken by the reviews and encouraged the teams to work quickly to identify the key issues. But these were complex, and we wanted right answers rather than quick ones, and to look at each case on its merits. We also had to keep in mind the important links between bodies in related fields.

The labs employ many dedicated and highly talented people, working in a vast range of scientific fields. Some have a high public profile, due to their crucial contribution to the investigation of public health concerns such as BSE or E.coli poisoning. Others operate with little media attention, but still perform important, often longer-term, research. As minister overseeing their work, and visiting whenever possible, I can confidently link them with the words "prestige, status and national pride", as suggested in last week's article.

To give just one example, the Babraham Institute, working in the biological sciences area, has used US professionals to provide numerical data about its performance over the past five years. The institute has reported that on this basis it is ranked above Oxford and Cambridge in all fields of its research. Staff have also won eight "Realising our Potential Awards", recognising their efforts to achieve closercollaborationbetween science and industry.

So is there life after reviews? Judging by the experience of my own department's National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which is now operated under contract by SERCO plc, there certainly is. NPL has made savings through better operating efficiency, and is able to carry out more research for the same amount of money. It has recruited 85 new staff - including 48 scientists. It also has more commercial freedom to exploit its unique technical assets and capabilities. My department has a medium-term contract to secure the vital research we need from NPL.

Nor is Britain alone here. Other countries are also refocusing the work of their public-sector research bodies. The US government is looking especially hard at the space agency Nasa, and the energy and health areas, while the Australian federal research organisation, CSIRO, is reforming its institutes to reduce bureaucracy. My team in the Office of Science and Technology has received a number of delegations from abroad, keen to learn how we have tackled these difficult issues.

Charles Arthur also mentioned the sale of the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Last Tuesday Robert Jones, the Minister for Construction, announced that the BRE management team has been selected as the preferred purchaser. Their bid best met all the Government's sale objectives. Careful consideration was given to the protection of impartiality and independence for which BRE is renowned. I am pleased that this bid has secured wide support from the construction industry and the research world.

No science minister can ignore the need to investigate whether the science base is operating efficiently or take action to halt mission drift. The Prior Options process is the sign of a responsible government, fully prepared to take all the necessary measures to maintain value for money and accountability in all areas of public spending.

Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

John Moore inspired this Coca Cola Christmas advert


Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Agricultural Solicitor - East Midlands

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EAST MIDLANDS MARKET TOWN - A new and exciting...

English Teacher Thetford Secondary

£110 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: An Academy based in Thetfor...

Secondary Teacher Great Yarmouth

£115 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are currently work...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes