Axe lifted from labs

June 23, 1995

The Government is about to drop radical proposals to reorganise research council institutes geographically and create managers responsible for cutting public laboratories.

The U-turn features in a draft of the Government's response to a Cabinet Office efficiency scrutiny of 53 public sector research establishments. The scrutiny report, compiled by civil servants reporting to the Prime Minister's efficiency adviser, Sir Peter Levene, was published in July 1994. It was criticised heavily by both the Lords and the House of Commons science and technology select committees and by the Royal Society.

The options of grouping institutes on a geographical basis and creating "directors of rationalisation" seem virtually certain to be shelved. Instead, the Government is planning to announce a full-scale review of facilities, focussing on research council institutes run by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council. The Medical Research Council's university-based units are likely to escape because they are heavily integrated into universities, but facilities such as the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in London could find themselves in the spotlight.

Called the "prior options study", the initiative will involve teams of assessors visiting facilities and in the first instance examining the need for the work that is being carried out at the research establishment. If it is decided that the work is valuable and necessary, the option of privatisating the facility will be examined. If this proves unfeasible, the team will examine the potential for rationalising and boosting the efficiency of the laboratory within the public sector.

The team is likely to comprise two to three people with representation from Government departments and the private sector. The Government is likely to expect that most of the assessors' analysis will be completed this year with implementation in 1996.

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