Technical failure down at the lab

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The Independent Online
Tom Wilkie laments the wasted potential of a prime scientific asset

If the playing fields of Eton proverbially won the battle of Waterloo, then victory in the Second World War can be located precisely to the leafy suburbs of Teddington, west London. For there, at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Robert Watson-Watt refined and developed radar, the greatest single factor contributing to the Allies' victory.

Now, the management of the laboratory is to be contracted out to the private sector as a prelude to its complete privatisation. Among the front- runners to take over this precious national asset, as this newspaper reported yesterday, are two large American groups.

Given that Britain owes its very survival as a free country to the work of this state-owned institution, does it matter that the NPL is to be sold off, possibly to foreign purchasers?

It certainly matters to the 750 staff, mainly highly qualified scientists and engineers, who work at Teddington. Many of them must fear that they will join the 46,000 people who were employed by industry to do scientific research and development in 1986, but who had vanished from the official statistics by 1992.

Those who remain must worry about how they can continue to do quality science (which is inevitably long-term) in an institution that will live on a succession of short-term contracts.

But for the rest of us, the sale of the NPL is just the last action in a larger tragedy, rather as the corpses are finally borne from the stage at the end of Hamlet after the drama is done and the fatal choices have long since been made. If the NPL does pass into foreign hands, we should not mourn the present loss, rather we should mourn the NPL as it might have been and ponder the potential that has been missed.

If the NPL was the cradle of radar, why did it not expand its role in peacetime Britain to become a forcing house for the post-war physics-based industries of electronics and telecommunications? The NPL built one of the earliest electronic computers but it diminished rather than grew, becoming a research institute into the fundamentals of metrology - the science of measurement. It has become, in effect, our national bureau of standards.

Britain today does not truly possess a national physics laboratory acknowledged as an international centre of excellence. The closest we have come to it is the Ministry of Defence's Malvern-based Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, now part of the Defence Research Agency. Government has always been keener to fund military rather than civilian science, even though the fruits of such research are confined to defence contractors and have not spread into civil industry.

Successive British governments have shied away from large-scale intervention in civilian industry. Instead, they have used science policy as a proxy for an industrial strategy, believing against all the evidence that if publicly funded science is made more "responsive to the marketplace" then British industry will take it up more actively and thus remedy its persistent under-performance through better innovation.

But it is increasingly clear that our post-war faults lie not in our science but in the way our industry is structured, managed and financed. Only once, with Harold Wilson's brief experiment of the Ministry of Technology (MinTech) in the Sixties, did a government try to address such issues. Its efforts to reorganise the under-capitalised, fragmented bit-players of British industrial high technology had some failures (notably in computer manufacture) but they bore fruit with GEC, which remains a major international company today.

MinTech was the progenitor of the Department of Trade and Industry, which is now selling off the NPL. The DTI has lost sight of the remit of its predecessor. Has the time come for a leap back to the future with the reinvention of MinTech?