Privatisers on the prowl

2019-03-02 06:18:00

By ANDY COGHLAN The future of up to 60 British research institutes is now being sketched out by a panel of ‘efficiency’ experts, sent around the country looking for candidates for privatisation. A team from the government’s Efficiency Unit, which is part of the Cabinet Office, will visit the state-owned institutes over the next two months and report its findings to the science minister, William Waldegrave, in April. Those laboratories the unit thinks should be privatised could be sold off by Christmas next year. Last May, in its White Paper on science and technology, the government said much of the work carried out by its research establishments could be done just as well in the private sector. It announced its intention to assess which institutions could survive as private companies. That exercise, begun last month, will focus on up to 30 research council institutes. The rest are laboratories run by government departments, including ‘semi-privatised’ agencies such as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, which comes under the wing of the Department of Trade and Industry. Many scientists are less than enthusiastic about privatisation, fearing that long-term research and research that is not commercially profitable will be phased out. Aaron Klug, head of the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, opposes privatisation of institutes such as the LMB because they do basic research that industry would not fund. ‘The MRC has had experience of funding research of this kind that in the long run has paid off, and that’s something that should not be interfered with,’ he says. A senior scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which is run by the Science and Engineering Research Council, doubts that a ‘market’ could ever exist for its particle physics research because the work is unique and the RAL has no competitors. The final decisions on these issues will fall to the relevant ministers. They will take into account advice from the Efficiency Unit, which was set up in 1979 to investigate whether government operations give value for money and suggest ways to improve them. Another of its objectives is to open up government work to competition. The unit’s ‘scrutiny’ exercise lasts 90 days, during which the 14-member team will judge the research institutes against comparable operations in the private sector. One member of the team is seconded from industry. The unit will also receive advice from a panel of experts on the management of research, with members chosen from both public and private sectors. On its visits, the team will expect information on ‘customer satisfaction’, overheads, and the staffing balance between administrators and active scientists. The assessors will interview key staff,