Ensuring the UK measures up

It costs a UK company much more to calibrate an instrument outside the UK than it does by using the National Measurement System (NMS), which is why many in industry are concerned by the freeze on NMS funding

The UK’s National Measurement System is the collective infrastructure of national facilities, expertise, knowledge, science, research and legal framework which provides traceable measurement and measurement standards for use in trade, industry, academia and the public sector.  It is led by our national measurement laboratories (National Physical Laboratory, LGC and TUV-NEL) whose programmes for maintaining and improving measurement are funded on behalf of the government by the National Measurement Office, an agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  Whether classified as current or as capital expenditure, all this spending should be seen as investment in our economy, says GAMBICA. 

Q. Why should we be concerned about funding?

Both current and capital funding for measurement are now below the levels they have reached in the past, and below the levels needed to provide for our national measurement needs in the future.  Current expenditure will fall in real terms by more than 25% in the decade to 2014. 

Q. How do other governments regard their national measurement systems?

The US and German governments regard investment in their national measurement laboratories as a critical feature of their economic recovery plans. The stature and funding of the national measurement laboratories in China, Japan, South Korea and Australia are rising. While measurement funding is falling in the UK, the USA’s measurement science budget fell by only 1 – 2% in real terms between 2002 and 2009.

Q. Why is the National Measurement System essential?

We use the International System of Units to measure, for example, time (the second), length (the metre), and mass (kilogram) – under gravity this represents weight.  There are also units for measuring energy, temperature, electricity, light, sound, amount of substance, radiation, frequency, magnetism, and many more.  All these units are internationally agreed to a high standard of accuracy.  Without confidence in uniform measurement, it would not be possible to buy and sell products, or to carry out research in science, engineering and technology.  Many government regulatory activities would be impossible. Public services, such as health care, would not be able to function properly.  Measurement is essential and ubiquitous. 

Q. What does the National Measurement System do?

Measuring instruments cannot be completely accurate.  An instrument is chosen to deliver the level of accuracy and value-for-money required.  Even so, every measuring instrument has to be calibrated:  that is, tested against a much more accurate instrument.  Calibration has to be carried out at intervals all through the life of the instrument.  This chain of ever-more-accurate traceable calibration ends at the top level:  our national measurement laboratories.  Their instruments are calibrated against each other and against instruments at the equivalent institutes of other countries.  Just as valuable as these calibration and testing services is a wealth of knowledge that the national measurement laboratories share with businesses, sectoral organisations, public authorities and professional bodies. 

Q. Why do we need to carry out research?

Economic growth is fuelled by technological improvements. There is a continuous need for greater accuracy in existing types of measurement, and for new types of measurement. Our national measurement laboratories have programmes of research which aim to ensure that future needs can be met. These programmes have been very successful.  The returns to the UK economy are huge in relation to the investment.  It takes many years to develop new and better instruments. The government needs to take the long view and reverse the decline in expenditure.   If not, measurement-dependent businesses and public authorities will not be able to improve their performance and the economy will pay the penalty in future years. 

Q. Why does the UK government have to do it?

Public authorities are among the biggest users of the National Measurement System.  Healthcare, consumer protection, crime, security, pollution – these are just some of the areas in which the government relies on measurement.  It is only reasonable that the government should bear the cost.  Over many years the UK has built a world-leading position in measurement which has generated huge returns.  It would be a waste to abandon this position.  If the UK had to rely increasingly on overseas measurement facilities and expertise, these would be less accessible and more expensive for UK users, including the government itself, which needs them for regulatory and policy purposes. Measurement-dependent UK businesses would be more likely to locate activities overseas and overseas businesses less likely to invest in the UK.  Science, engineering and technology departments in UK universities would be disadvantaged too. The measurement services we now export would have to be imported instead. And improved measurement capability spins off into new technology. 

Investments in both facilities and research must be made now if we are to be sure of meeting future needs.  Even our most recent facilities, designed about 15 years ago, do not provide the combination of low vibration, low noise, low interference and tight control of temperature and humidity that are needed for the most delicate work.  Without further investment, improvements in the measurement of time and electrical constants will be limited, as will work on quantum technologies such as computing.  If so, our ability to derive economic benefit from these developments will also be limited. 

In the UK we hope to introduce Carbon Capture and Storage – this will have to be regulated and regulation will require accurate measurement. Even to quantify precisely the progress of global climate change and the impact of carbon dioxide, we must improve our ability to measure it.  A large expansion of metrology capacity is needed if we are to provide internationally accepted traceable measurement in this field. 

GAMBICA

T: 020 7642 8080

www.gambica.org.uk

Related Articles