National Physical Laboratory

NPL's International Science Benchmarking Exercise

As the UK's National Measurement Institute (NMI), the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) holds unique status as an independent organisation overlapping industry, government and academia with a correspondingly diverse set of stakeholders. NPL is an innovator of measurement science and techniques, providing a stable and enduring reference point for measurements needed to support standards and regulations. It also serves as a source of independent technical advice to government and industry.

Newton's cradle
Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Underpinning these activities must be excellence in science and its application. Continual improvement in the calibre and responsiveness in NPL's science is vital to its effective uptake and deployment in pursuit of economic benefit and improvements in quality of life.

In order to independently review its science activities, and to build on the work to assess the impact and output of NPL's scientists, we put together an international Review Panel, drawn from senior colleagues in NMIs, industry and academia, to undertake a major benchmarking exercise supported by a wider group of experts in key areas. This paper outlines the process and main conclusions.

The aims of the review were to:

  1. Benchmark NPL's science output against appropriate peer groups.
  2. Make qualitative assessments of the wider economic and social impact of NPL's science against appropriate peer groups.
  3. Establish a methodology for assessment of science quality and impact that is rigorous, externally recognisable and consistent with NPL's mission.

NPL's vision, which was held at the heart of this exercise, is:

"To deliver the highest economic and social impact as a world leading National Measurement Institute through excellent, responsive science and knowledge services."

This independent, expert review was based on an assessment of portfolios of submitted material organised according to broad science and technology categories. Expert reviewers, a minimum of two in each area, provided feedback against an established set of criteria based upon this documentary evidence. The Review Panel then used the reports from the expert reviewers, other documentary evidence, plus their knowledge, judgement and technical expertise, to draw a collective conclusion about individual portfolios and the overall performance of NPL.

The Panel found:

  • Compelling evidence that NPL is operating as one of the world's top three NMIs, both in terms of its scientific achievements and the impact of its work.
  • NPL holds an internationally leading or competitive position in 80% of the areas in which it has chosen to participate.
  • NPL clearly provides strong support to the industrial base in the UK and delivers significant benefit relative to cost. Indeed they said that: "It is difficult to imagine how large parts of the industrial base would operate were NPL not to exist."
  • NPL is providing excellent value for money.

The review highlighted:

  • High performing areas tend to have a well-defined scientific scope and focused metrology objectives as well as a long and distinguished track record.
  • The balance between research, the NMI core function and programmes to address specific industrial needs appears to be reasonable.
  • The proportion of funding under NPL's discretion is significantly lower than that in other NMIs.

The Review Panel recommended that NPL:

  • Strengthens its strategic planning process through high level input from industry and other stakeholders.
  • Considers further strategic partnerships with European NMIs to maximise effectiveness of limited resources.
  • Increases the availability of discretionary funding.
  • Prioritises investment and capability building to ensure resources are not spread too thin.
  • Considers how to increase the number of post-doctoral staff participating in the NPL's research programmes.

NPL would like to offer thanks to the dedication of the Review Panel and other experts involved. Whilst there is much to be proud of in their results, they provide us with food for thought on how we might improve. We will be working through their recommendations and those provided at the detailed level on each science and technology portfolio.

Kamal Hossain
Director, Research & International
National Physical Laboratory (NPL)

Last Updated: 1 May 2012
Created: 22 Nov 2011

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