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Does privatisation mean the death of scientific research?

November 14, 2011

Next year there’ll be buy-one-get-one-free offers on DNA fingerprinting and greater shareholders’ dividends as a result of a murder spree. Not quite, but next year’s full privatisation of the Forensic Science Service is just as provocative. It poses the question: should more public science be supplied by companies?

Will the government see the green in DNA fingerprinting?

Will the government see the green in DNA fingerprinting?

The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology said that in deciding to close the FSS, the government overlooked key considerations “in favour of the bottom line”. The committee even slated Professor Bernard Silverman, the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser, for dodging the decision-making process. The committee found “his failure to challenge the decision to be unacceptable”.

And now the liberal thinktank CentreForum is recommending further involvement of the private sector in running public sector research establishments (PRSEs). “Privatised establishments like LGC and QinetiQ have grown strongly and profitably since privatisation,” claims the report. The author, Quentin Maxwell-Jackson, said: “The message is very clear. Research establishments can perform better when they are given greater freedom.”

Science works

He’s talking only of financial and organisational performance. When PST spoke to Maxwell-Jackson, he admitted that science was dispassionate about whether it was conducted in public or private hands. “In terms of their scientific performance and what the government needs from [the 17 public sector research establishments studied], we didn’t find major differences,” he told PST. “In fact they all seemed to be doing at least a satisfactory and in some cases a very good job whether they were in the public or private sector.”

Nevertheless, Maxwell-Jackson cannot ignore the 800% growth in revenue at LGC since its privatisation. He chalks up its success to shedding itself of the bureaucracy and lack of access to capital it saw in the public sector. Indeed, LGC is now a major player on the European genomics scene through taking business-minded decisions. It is so successful that it can afford to fund reports to help it win more business. Along with Battalle and Serco, LGC funded today’s CentreForum report. But Maxwell-Jackson vowed that the opinions it contains are his.

Cause for concern

As well as funding thinktank reports, LGC sells its forensic science services, and will likely grow in this field as the government finally outsources all the forensics work it needs done. Denise Syndercombe-Court, a forensics expert at the Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, is concerned about what forensics privatisation means for research. “My big problem is the future of forensic science,” she told PST. “The government used to put money into research in the FSS and they no longer do that. And nobody puts money into it. There is no funding for forensic science – so where is the research going to get done?”

Syndercombe-Court claims that the research usually conducted by science companies is designed to improve their standing in the market. In his study, Maxwell-Jackson notes that LGC “invests from its own funds in R&D in ‘promising areas of science’, providing the seed capability to grow rapidly in areas of market promise.” That kind of behaviour is singled out for criticism by Syndercombe-Court. “Being a private company,” she says, speaking broadly over privatised science bodies, “they do not offer the benefits of that research to the world and to the community until they have managed to take several years over patenting it if they can in order to make themselves money.”

What do you think: should more public science be privatised?

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