Climbdown on privatised research

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Indy Politics
Labour reacted with glee last night as the Government turned back from proposals to privatise scientific research under its "Prior Options" programme, which has so far cost more than pounds 3.5m since September 1995.

The announcement that none of the 28 research centres around the country which employ thousands of scientists conducting research into a diverse range topics from BSE to hydrology will be privatised follows months of uncertainty.

It apparently means that the future of the centres in the public sector is assured through the life of the next parliament, although the Government left the door open for an earlier review.

Announcing the decision in Parliament yesterday, Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, said: "Prior options reviews are normally undertaken on a five-yearly cycle ... [but] reviews may in some circumstances be necessary within the five-year period."

The results of the review are believed to have been delivered to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) well before Christmas. But ministers have been tight-lipped about the reasons for the delay before publishing their decision not to put any other establishments into the private sector.

Ian Taylor, the Science and Technology minister, defended the review process, saying the cost was small compared to the centres' annual pounds 690m budgets.

Adam Ingram, Labour's spokesman for science and technology, called the review "a waste of time and money" and said: "We welcome the Government's backing off for the time being from their own prejudices in the face of pressure from the wider science community. But make no mistake, if this government wins the election they will be back to privatise each and every establishment." Labour has pledged not to continue Prior Options, under which 37 research establishments were examined.

A number of research centres have already been sold off, including the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Mr Taylor told The Independent: "NPL has made savings through better operating efficiency and is able to carry out more research for the same amount of money."