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National Physical Laboratory faces change of ownership

The government has decided not to renew a contract with private company Serco for the running of the National Physical Laboratory and will instead seek out academic partners to take over the centre.

The NPL is currently a government-owned, contractor-operated institute and has been run by Serco since 1995. This deal expires in March 2014 and will not be renewed. Science minister David Willetts said in a parliamentary statement on 27 November that the laboratory and its site outside London in Teddington provide “opportunities which would be difficult to realise under an extension of the current contract.”

Willetts said the change of ownership will reflect the government’s aim to strengthen “both fundamental research and engagement with business” at the centre.

“I consider that the partners should have a clear, long-term stake in the ownership and operation of the National Physical Laboratory which would not be possible under the current arrangements which, of necessity, must be time-limited,” said Willetts in the statement.

In particular, Willetts said he wants to make better use of the existing facilities and encourage greater interaction with businesses. He added that partnering with a university would also enable the NPL to set up an institute dedicated to postgraduate research. This university would not necessarily have to be a UK institution, he added.

NPL currently has between 40 and 70 collaborations running with academia at any given time.

The change could lead to uncertainty for the staff at NPL—an issue acknowledge by Willetts. “NPL Management Limited will continue and will remain the employer of staff at the laboratory, although its ownership will change,” he said. “But this change will not of itself affect jobs at the Laboratory. Working with an academic partner I would expect, in the longer term, an increase in employment opportunities.”