Labs face testing times

February 2, 1996

Public sector laboratories are braced for 12 months of introspection following the Government's publication of its timetable for reviewing each one by the end of the year, writes Aisling Irwin.

Directors of the laboratories predict loss of staff morale, and several said that privatisation would damage their organisations.

The Government announced last autumn the Prior Options review which "will involve a rigorous test of whether a public service function is required and whether there is scope for privatising, contracting out, merging bodies or transferring work between them".

The Government set up the reviews after it had to drop a radical Cabinet Office proposal to reorganise research council institutes geographically and create managers responsible for cutting laboratories.

Peter Cook, director of the British Geological Survey, said that the BGS wins valuable work overseas because of its public status, associated with impartiality. An example is a recent contract from Papua New Guinea worth Pounds 5.5 million, of which 40 per cent will eventually go to United Kingdom industry.

Dick Flavell, director of the John Innes Centre said there was an air of frustration among laboratory directors. He warned that the process seemed aimed at "reducing public expenditure and could lower the status of science". But, he said, if the review "clears the air once and for all" then it could have been useful.

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