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Endangered species

Why the government scientist needs saving

A think tank close to the Liberal Democrats has presented the UK government with a vision for the future of public sector research establishments that are still government-owned and government-run. Only it is not so much a vision as a blast from the past, as in past Conservative governments of the 1980s.

After the privatisations and lab closures of the 1980s and 90s, just seven research labs remain government-owned and government-operated. The CentreForum think tank now wants these to go private too, which could save the UK taxpayer £1.3 billion annually, and additionally generate growth and jobs for the UK economy.

It sees little reason for such labs to remain in government control. Decisions take too long to make; capital cannot be raised easily; and the civil service is costly to maintain. Its preference is for the labs to become knowledge-transfer organisations, moving away from reliance on UK government contracts and competing internationally for business, like the defence R&D company QinetiQ.

Government scientists have been endangered for some time: their demise was accelerated by slow decision-making in national emergencies such as the BSE crisis, and nailed by the advent of all-powerful chief scientists in Whitehall departments who are free to create their own teams from the best the outside world has to offer.

And yet the era of AP Rowe and Robert Watson-Watt did have one advantage. It is true that scientists who are civil servants have better job security and more generous benefits than counterparts elsewhere. But this can be positive too: it means that scientists in the public sector could look forward to that rare thing called a career; and the UK could look forward to a healthy reservoir of expertise in many fields and not just those attractive in the marketplace—fields which, like radar, suddenly become important during international emergencies, such as world wars.

Expertise that is lost when government labs become knowledge-transfer organisations cannot be grown or bought overnight, as the latest report on the state of the UK’s nuclear R&D from the House of Lords science and technology committee illustrates.

Since 1980, 12 publicly funded nuclear research labs have closed, reducing the nuclear R&D workforce from around 9,000 to 1,000 today. The UK’s £4.5 million annual spend is lower than spending by other G7 nations. Switzerland spends £16m, France £445m, and Belgium £39m. For the UK, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the nation whose scientists and whose universities were critical to the splitting of the atom, this is a particularly troubling place to be in.

The Lords want more leadership and strategic thinking from government on the research workforce: in effect the opposite of what CentreForum is advocating. This is sage advice. The extinction of the government scientist is bad policy, which no developed economy, nor indeed emerging economy, is keen to copy. If it happens, we may all pay a heavy price.