The Contribution of National Laboratories to the European Scientific Labour Market
(Theme 2: Human Resources/Labour Market issues in European S&T;)

Helen Lawton Smith


The dynamics of labour markets as the key to economic development are re-emerging as major academic and political themes. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly apparent that mobility of personnel is becoming a critical issue in the management of research. This because technology transfer and the movement of scientists and engineers are part of the same process. People transfer involves the relocation of technological knowledge. While benefiting recipient institutions in particular places directly, this also feeds into existing networks of contacts. This is increasingly important because of changing technological imperatives due to (i) convergence in technologies, and (ii) the need to combine interdisciplinary scientific and engineering knowledge located in other institutions inside and outside national boundaries. In this scenario, efficient networking becomes essential.

This study focuses on the contribution made by specific national laboratories in the UK, France and Belgium to the composition and dynamics of European scientific labour markets. Its objectives are:

  • to contribute new information on employment changes in case study institutions
  • to evaluate the spatial consequences of how changing political priorities towards national laboratories, control and promote new patterns of skill transfer (Findlay and Gould 1989 p.5), using as a framework their regulatory, geographical and historical context

This study contains three elements (I) detailed information on six laboratories, three in the UK, one in France and two in Belgium, and includes nuclear energy research centres in each country; (ii) information on three other laboratories, one in France and two in Belgium; and (iii) coverage of employment change organisations responsible for individual laboratories. This includes for the UK, AEA Technology, and the Defence Research Agency, and for France the Atomic Energy Authority (CEA) and the French aeronautics organisation (ONERA).

Main Results

In Europe and in North America, the ending of the cold war, the maturity of nuclear energy and the attendant waste disposal and decommissioning of old reactors and power stations have presented problems of how to adjust the functions of major institutions set up to develop technology in defence, and nuclear energy to meet the needs of the 1990s and beyond. The UK, like France and Belgium, has undertaken a series of steps to increase greater utilisation and exploitation of these national scientific and technological resources. In the UK, these have included the institution of Agency Status, and preparation for privatisation of some non-defence laboratories. This has meant a move away from longer-term research to shorter- term commercial activities. France has maintained long term commitments to domestic research programmes, including nuclear energy and aerospace, while developing strategies to overcome bottlenecks associated with low turnover of personnel. In Belgium, a mixture of tactics has been adopted, which includes innovative initiatives towards regional development, founded on technological advance. The most important example of this is the Flanders Inter- University Microelectronics Centre (IMEC). Although this has a different genesis and funding structure to the other laboratories, it provides an important model for the UK to consider. The key concept which enables the understanding of differences between UK, and French and Belgian laboratories is renewal.

Laboratory characteristics. Declining employers. National laboratories are important but, with three exceptions, are declining employers in general and in particular of scientists and engineers. UK laboratories have shown the steepest decline. The exceptions are the Belgian atomic energy laboratory, SCK, and IMEC. Most reductions in size have been achieved through early retirement.

High average age. Most, with the exception of IMEC, have a high average age, at around mid- 40s. Average age at IMEC is 30. The major factor is that normal turnover is very low. Laboratories provide interesting and secure environments for scientists and engineers in France and Belgium. This is now far less the case in the UK. Females constitute a very low proportion of scientific staff.

Limited participation in the international labour market. The majority of employees in the laboratories are domestic nationals. This is a legacy of national security interests which prevented non-nationals being employed in defence and nuclear energy laboratories. IMEC is much the most cosmopolitan. In 1993, foreigners constituted 15% of the workforce, with 22 nationalities represented. While security rules make it difficult to employ foreigners to work in defence areas, mobility in CEA (France) has been increased by welcoming a large number of foreign short-term visitors (some 424 foreign post-docs since 1988).

Need for increased flexibility. The need to increase flexibility in order for there to be renewal in the research process is universally recognised. What distinguishes French and Belgian laboratories from those in the UK in general is the methods used to achieve this. These include the introduction of flexible terms of employment, involvement of students as an integral element in the organisation of research and recruitment of younger people. Students, by their temporary status, are a mobile section of the scientific labour market. National laboratories traditionally have played an important role in supervising graduate students and employing vacation students. This persists in all laboratories in Belgium and France but has declined dramatically in the UK, although to a lesser extent at DRA Malvern.

Implications for Policy and Practice

If UK national laboratories, in whatever form they exist, are to remain a significant source of knowledge which has potential commercial value, then it is essential that the UK system encourages student and post-doc experience, the recruitment of younger people and an increased participation by non-nationals. The UK's strength is its world-class excellence in basic research. Part of this is being lost by its limited ability to incorporate these elements into its laboratories and ensure renewal of research. This research suggests that if research quality is not maintained, commercial business will go elsewhere. A balance has to be found between retaining scientific skills and commercialisation of research. An investigation into where national laboratories are going to be positioned in the science base is now essential. This should involve academics, industrialists and policy makers. There is a need to develop new visions and a strategy to implement them.

The example of IMEC provides a useful starting point for such an investigation. It is an ideal model of a laboratory supplying highly skilled personnel into regional, national and international economies. The political vision which established IMEC created a unique focus of semi-public institution and industry interaction based on a recognition of the power of innovation. The evidence suggests that IMEC has been very successful in meeting a number of its technological and training objectives. On the other hand, successful exploitation of IMEC's resources is dependent on the wider regulatory context. This includes regional government decisions on the level of (i) research support for IMEC and the universities, and (ii) funds to support R& D investment in industry, which is linked to the level of industry spend on IMEC's research.

Main Results

Findlay, A. and Gould, W. T. S. "Skilled international migration, a research agenda" Area 21(1), pp. 3-1 (1989)

McKenney, B. A. National Benefits from National Laboratories: Meeting Tomorrow's National Technology Needs. Final report of the CSIS National Benefits from National Laboratories Project, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC

MMC United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority: A Report on the Service Provided by the Authority, HMSO, London (1992)

OECD Research Manpower: Managing Supply and Demand (1989a)

OECD The Changing Role of Government Research Laboratories (1989b)

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