Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the National Physical Laboratory (SAGE 03)

Input to the Science and Technology Committee Inquiry on: Science advice and evidence in emergencies


  The National Physical Laboratory welcomes the opportunity to make an input to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry on Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies. We respond to just one of the Inquiries questions, question 4 about strategic coordination.


  The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the UK's national measurement institute (NMI) and sits at the intersection between scientific discovery and real world application. Its expertise and original research have underpinned quality of life, innovation and competitiveness for UK citizens and business for more than a century.

    — NPL develops and maintains the nation's primary measurement standards, supporting an infrastructure of traceable measurement throughout the UK and the world to ensure accuracy and consistency—a necessary foundation for a technologically advanced economy.

    — NPL provides companies with access to world leading support and technical expertise, inspiring the absolute measurement confidence required to realise competitive advantage from new materials, techniques and technologies.

    — NPL has a GOCO structure—Government owned, contractor operated.

  It is estimated by government economists that the UK's National Measurement System, of which NPL is the main provider, generates benefits of up to £2 billion p.a. to UK GDP.

  On the strength of its NMI capabilities, NPL also plays a broader national role, supporting the policy objectives of BIS and other government departments with leading edge science. For example it is a partner in more than 30 Technology Strategy Board collaborative R&D projects and manages two of the national Knowledge Transfer Networks, supporting the Technology Strategy Board's aim to make the UK a global leader in innovation. It also provides Defra with a suite of scientific services concerned with air quality.

How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?

  At present BIS and other government departments make relatively little use of NPL except for its core purpose of delivering the NMS. This is a missed opportunity, not matched by our competitors in Europe and the USA. For example:

    — In the USA our sister laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, supports the US government well beyond measurement, including policy development where there is a strong science and technology component. It is located within the Department of Commerce but is funded directly by other US government departments who exploit its capabilities for their own purposes. For example it led studies that investigated the cause of the collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York after the terrorist attack on 9/11.

  NPL is just one of about 160 UK Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) that provide expert and independent advice to government. These PSREs provide an under-utilised and strategically poorly-coordinated source for expert scientific advice for government, which could be organised to provide essential advice to government in times of emergency. However, currently the body of PSREs is poorly coordinated so that it is difficult for government to identify quickly from where appropriate advice can be obtained. The PSREs are generally associated with a particular government department, hindering the access of advice that in emergencies often needs to cross-departmental boundaries.

  Our view is that a core group of these PSREs should be developed as National Laboratories becoming an effective network enabling pan-government solutions to strategic, economic, social and environmental problems of vital national and international importance, including providing expert scientific advice for national emergencies.

National Physical Laboratory

26 August 2010

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