Written statement to Parliament

Future operation of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)

Written ministerial statement regarding the future operation of the NPL.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Willetts

Written ministerial statement Rt Hon David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science

Department for Buisness Innovation and Skills

National Physical Laboratory

27th November 2012

I wish to inform the house of my decision on the future operation of the National Physical Laboratory.

The National Physical Laboratory is the UK’s principal National Measurement Institute and is an international leader. It plays an important role in the provision and dissemination of measurement standards to UK trade and industry, and supplies vital innovation infrastructure to both business and academia. Its interaction with industry leads to a substantial contribution to GDP. In addition to its role underpinning the UK’s measurement infrastructure, it has a large research portfolio and has between 40 and 70 collaborations with academia at any given time.

The National Physical Laboratory has been operated since 1995 as a government-owned, Contractor-operated facility by Serco Group plc through the vehicle of NPL Management Limited. The current contract comes to an end in March 2014. I have considered the options for how the Laboratory should be operated in the future and have concluded that the Laboratory and the Teddington site provide opportunities which would be difficult to realise under an extension of the current contract. I have therefore decided not to exercise that option.

The natural break of the contract in 2014 provides the opportunity to enhance the NPL and the Teddington site as a science and technology resource in the future.

I want to strengthen both fundamental research and engagement with business by applying measurement science to support innovation and growth. The government’s aim is to:

  • bring greater expertise and intellectual flexibility to strengthen the Laboratory’s science
  • make better use of the existing facilities by strengthening the Laboratory’s links with its academic partners, through new and existing collaborations with academia and industry
  • encourage greater interaction with business, driven by closer integration of existing innovation infrastructure and commercial activity
  • make better use of the site at Teddington by granting partners access to our spare capacity

The key to delivering this is to form a strategic alliance with one or more academic partners in place of the existing contract. For instance, this could be achieved through some form of joint venture between government and a university or applied science organisation with an interest in investment in science and technology. Such a structure would provide both the long-term commitment that partners will be looking for and the impartiality and stability that industry and international bodies value. I consider that the partners should have a clear, long-term stake in the ownership and operation of the National Physical Laboratory which would not be possible under the current arrangements which, of necessity, must be time-limited. A partnership with an academic institution would also allow for the formation of a dedicated applied science postgraduate institute.

In seeking partners, we intend to cast the net wide, including internationally, in order to attract the partners who are best suited to help us develop the Teddington site into a vibrant science, technology and innovation campus with a focus on measurement science for industry.

This will strengthen the Laboratory’s relationships with industry and its manifold existing collaborations with universities. The National Physical Laboratory is a crucial UK asset and we can be proud of its continued record as one of the top three national measurement institutes in the world. I value the commitment and dedication of the National Physical Laboratory staff. Uncertainty can be unsettling but the approach we are proposing will offer some immediate certainty for staff. NPL Management Limited will continue and will remain the employer of staff at the Laboratory, although its ownership will change. But this change will not of itself affect jobs at the Laboratory. Working with an academic partner I would expect, in the longer term, an increase in employment opportunities.

Published 27 November 2012