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.

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