'The scientific community came together to innovate’: how one BEIS-backed institute responded to Covid

Covid-19 has pushed science to the front pages, Dr Peter Thompson, chief executive of National Physical Laboratory, writes about science’s role in aiding economic recovery
National Physical Laboratory. Photo: steve/National Physical Laboratory/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Dr Peter Thompson

15 Jan 2021

Science is inherently a collaborative activity. As scientists and engineers, our research is peer reviewed, spans all sectors of society and across industries, academia and government. We work with local, national and international partners, we break down barriers, innovate and have impact that is felt globally. Many will remember 2020 as the year that science was pushed to the forefront; entire front pages were dedicated to science’s endeavours, and for many this would be the first time that science mattered to them on a personal level. When will the vaccine arrive? When can I visit my elderly relative?

Naturally, the focus was about understanding the virus and subsequently leading on fighting it, helping to save people’s lives and developing a vaccine against it. As chief executive of a national laboratory, partner organisation of our owner, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I saw first-hand how the scientific community came together to innovate and help to solve some of the challenge’s coronavirus posed.

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, we view the world through the lens of metrology (the science of measurement) and how it underpins economic prosperity and quality of life.

"I saw first-hand how the scientific community came together to innovate and help to solve some of the challenge’s coronavirus posed"

I had been chief executive of NPL for over four years when the pandemic struck. Previous to this role, in my time in defence, I had seen the impact that national laboratories can have in emergency situations, like the 7/7 bombings and Ebola. Whilst NPL was able to apply its skills to the immediate Covid-19 response in areas such as ventilators, PPE and maintaining critical national capabilities, it became increasingly clear that we had a significant role to play in the Covid-19 economic recovery too.

There were hurdles to overcome, of course. Our laboratories had to be Covid-secure and our workforce’s health and wellbeing has remained my highest priority throughout. Whilst we never closed, we moved to a new way of working with a mix of home working and laboratory working, as well as new ways of navigating the site to maintain social distancing.

Once these changes had been implemented we instigated our Measurement for Recovery (M4R) programme, which made our highly-skilled scientists and engineers and the facilities they operate under the National Measurement System*, available at no cost to support UK companies seeking to recover from the multiple lockdown periods and consequential changes to business operations

We received great support from our colleagues in BEIS and from our partnering laboratories that make up the NMS. Take up was steady to begin with as companies took stock of their own situation but momentum soon built and at the time of writing over 370 companies have applied, with over 150 projects now running.

As more and more companies got in touch, we were presented with a range of different challenges from a variety of businesses including: companies that pivoted production lines to manufacturing PPE, start-ups innovating new ways of designing and building products who had lost time, money and investment during lockdown. The programme has helped bring products to market faster, supported investment, helped to increase sales and, in some cases has provided confidence in the intelligent and effective use of data.

Mark Evans, chief executive, of Adaptix, who joined the programme in August was recently quoted saying, “NPL offered capability beyond that which an SME, and in many cases even a university, will have in-house. Measurement is critical to hardware-based technology development and NPL's advanced equipment allowed it to characterise the structure and chemical composition to sub-micron. We are working on next-generation medical imaging and this next step in our journey will be to maximise the UK jobs that result from UK innovation, and NPL has supported us in taking the technology towards being a commercial product.”

"Whilst the UK can be rightfully proud of the breadth and quality of science and engineering in its academic sector, the impact of public-sector science and engineering can sometimes be overlooked"

Whilst the UK can be rightfully proud of the breadth and quality of science and engineering in its academic sector, the impact of public-sector science and engineering can sometimes be overlooked, and unfairly in my opinion, given the impact it has on society. The M4R programme is an excellent example of how knowledge from public sector research establishments can be utilised by industry to aid the economy and improve quality of life. In leading this programme, we have also amassed a body of information regarding the challenges faced by start-ups SMEs and others across multiple sectors and supply chains. I am able to now present this knowledge back to government to inform innovation policy development.

In the end, will this effort make a difference? Well, previous programmes such as Analysis for Innovators (A4i), in collaboration with Innovate UK, have recorded science’s impact on the economy. Those that took part stated they had secured price premiums for their products, which for one company delivered £17.5m of sales, secured patents and future investment, and for one start-up helped with their first £5m licensing deal. So yes, I believe it will, indeed it already is for those companies already involved.

* The National Measurement System provides substantial impact on every aspect of UK life and its economic success. The NMS enables the UK to compete in global trade and manufacturing by ensuring consistency and recognition of measurement units and standards throughout the world. Internationally leading knowledge and expertise is passed on to UK stakeholders by a coordinated programme of knowledge transfer.

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