Too many labs ignored

October 27, 1994

John Krebs, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, last week called for an examination of university as well as civil service laboratories in reshaping public sector research.

Giving evidence to the House of Lords select committee on science and technology about the government efficiency study on public sector research, he said that while he welcomed parts of the study, he was concerned that it lacked costings for proposed changes.

"The council's position is that no option should be accepted without a full cost-benefit analysis. The study, now out for consultation, was conducted by a team reporting to Sir Peter Levene, head of the Cabinet Office's efficiency unit. It considered 52 research institutes and Government laboratories and proposed two possible models for raising efficiency.

Professor Krebs questioned their selection of institutes, arguing that they provided only a very limited view of the British research effort. He said that universities should also have been included to enable a comprehensive assessment.

NERC also dislikes the two models. Model one proposes creating four new "market sector" groupings. It would mean the Scottish Office getting overall command of work on marine resources and environment, swallowing up several NERC facilities as a result.

Professor Krebs argued that this would damage NERC's environmental mission in areas such as coastal erosion and pollution, flooding, sea level change and resources on the ocean floor.

Model two proposes the creation of geographically based groupings. But Professor Krebs said that this would also undermine scientific research, for example, in pollution. "I do not see any point in looking at atmospheric pollution as being different in Edinburgh to what it is in London. It is a national, European and indeed a global issue," he said.

Professor Krebs's reservations were echoed by Richard Packer, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, in his evidence to the Lords. He questioned the benefits of some suggestions in the report saying it was "surprising" that proposals for boosting efficiency had no costings. All changes on the scale proposed by the efficiency unit involved cost by "absolute definition".

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