Union challenges neutrality of research labs report

Union questions neutrality of CentreForum report on public sector research establishments

Prospect has challenged a CentreForum report which says the government should look at whether more of its laboratories could be privatised or operated by contractor organisations.

The report compares seven PSREs that have become private enterprises with seven that are owned and operated by the government.

Not comparing like with like. As the report itself says, each of the organisations studied operates in a different sector or market:

“This means that comparing these organisations directly against each other – given their very different missions, the different markets in which they operate, and their different scale – would be misleading.”

The words blue skies research are only mentioned once in the whole report. None of the organisations featured has a pure R&D focus, and none of them conducts a significant amount of curiosity-led or blue skies research.

Prospect’s head of research Sue Ferns said: “If the UK abandons basic, speculative science - in which it has always excelled - in favour of something with immediate payback then we will always be following discoveries made elsewhere.”

Impartiality. Although CentreForum believes “some activities need to remain in the public sector for reasons of security and the need for impartiality”, this theme is not developed and the word impartiality is only mentioned once in the report.

Neutrality. The author, Quentin Maxwell-Jackson, a former partner of the US audit, tax and advisory services firm KPMG, says the views expressed are his own. But the union has questioned the neutrality of a report funded by organisations which have a vested interest in several of the establishments studied, ie LGC (the former Laboratory of the Government Chemist) and Serco.

The report said: “The success of some of the privatised establishments, and to some extent those under private management, stems directly from the removal of public sector operating constraints including slow decision making, high overheads and a lack of access to capital.”

Ferns pointed out that government laboratories don’t have to be sold or contracted out in order to remove these constraints.

“We need to get beyond simplistic public sector bad, private sector good arguments and this report fails to do that. It was launched in November last year, then reheated and dished up again in February. Was this because no one took any notice of it the first time round?” Ferns concluded.