Warren Spring scientists shun move to AEA

The Government's decision to close Warren Spring Laboratory (WSL) is ending, as it began, in controversy. Significantly fewer staff than expected are joining the new National Environmental Technology Centre (NETC), several important research teams have been broken up, and the NETC's business prospects are under a cloud.

The decision to close WSL and merge some of its staff and facilities with the environmental research arm of the Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) to form the NETC was announced by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, last June (ENDS Report 221, pp 4-5 ).

Mr Heseltine was condemned for acting purely from financial considerations. WSL's closure means that most of the cash from the impending £25 million sale of its site in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, to Glaxo will go to the Treasury rather than pay for a new laboratory which WSL had already begun building nearby.

Critics also argued that the merger was designed to fatten up AEA for its impending privatisation. Dr Douglas Cormack, WSL's Chief Executive, appeared to agree when he told a parliamentary inquiry last November that what had been done to WSL could "probably" be described as asset stripping.

The merger, now almost complete, has not proceeded according to plan. Fewer staff than expected are transferring to AEA. PA Consulting, whose study for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was used to justify the closure decision, had assumed that 100 would transfer. And Dr Stuart Nelson of AEA Technology told the parliamentary inquiry that 110-115 of WSL's staff would do so.

In the event, only 85 are going. The remaining 55 who were offered a transfer, another 45 scientists who were not, and all 100 of WSL's support personnel are taking other jobs, voluntary redundancy or early retirement.

A spokesman for the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS) at WSL commented that "AEA were supposed to be in charge of making it an attractive move; that's not the view of the staff here."

Many, he said, had been discouraged from moving to AEA by its attempts to impose conditions of employment. AEA has ring-fenced incoming WSL staff so that they will be the first to go if redundancies prove necessary. The privatisation of AEA, possibly next year, has sparked fears about job losses, and these have not been alleviated by the NETC's inability to tell the IPMS its projected income for 1994/5.

Precisely how much of WSL's business will transfer to the NETC is unclear. WSL told last November's parliamentary inquiry that it had lost about 25% of its income, worth £2.9-3.4 million, as a result of the closure decision. And 80% by value of the contracts it had last November were due to end by this month. What is being transferred to AEA, according to WSL, "is largely the opportunity to do business rather than continuing programmes of work."

Four of WSL's research teams have been decimated:

  • All six members of the vehicle emissions group are not transferring to AEA.

  • Only four of the 13-strong acid rain monitoring group are moving to AEA.

  • None of the eight staff in the pollutant dispersion modelling team is joining AEA - which did not want the business anyway.

  • Only eight of the 17 staff in WSL's air pollution monitoring team are transferring to AEA.

    As well as the heads of three of these four teams, the leaders of WSL's contaminated land technology and waste treatment groups will not be going to AEA.

    This is not the scenario painted by PA. The consultancy concluded that about 100 of WSL's technical staff were "considered critical to its capability - in general, those at more senior levels with the greatest experience."

    The question now is whether WSL's accumulated, but now dispersed, experience and capability can be rebuilt at the NETC. At a time when its management will be preoccupied with privatisation and the need to find new business quickly, the necessary long-term perspective may be in short supply.

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