Why did I leave NPL?


Me in July 2019

17 days in…

…and not working at NPL is everything I had hoped it would be. Even with COVID-anxiety and family illnesses, my time away from NPL has given me a lightness of spirit that I have not experienced for years.

Why do I feel so happy to have left NPL?

Earlier this year it became financially possible for me to leave NPL. And once it became possible to leave, the thought of staying suddenly felt unbearable and I handed in my notice within days.

Unbearable? Really?

One of the things I could not write about while I was still employed by NPL, was what it was like to work there.

Why couldn’t I write about NPL? Because saying even a single negative word about NPL would have resulted in my instant dismissal.

In truth, I still feel traumatised by my experiences at NPL. I expect it will take months to years to recover.

I feel like I have escaped from an abusive relationship. Even thinking about the place now still causes me to feel physically sick. And there is much that I can hardly bear to recall, let alone recount.

I stayed at NPL for 20 years, and there were good times. I worked with great colleagues and I believe I was well-regarded by them.

Without exception, every year my appraisal deemed I had ‘exceeded expectations’ or whatever daft phrase they had invented for ‘doing OK’. With colleagues I won two Rayleigh medals for the best scientific paper of the year, and in 2009 I was awarded an MBE!

And I worked with fantastic colleagues to deliver a UK contribution to the re-definition of the base units of the SI. I feel genuinely privileged to have taken part in such an activity.

But over this long period NPL as an institution has descended into a sad and chaotic state. If NPL were an individual I would describe them as suffering from a narcissistic delusional psychosis.

In my estimation it has become an organisation that has lost touch with the reality of what it is supposed to do and become obsessed with itself, its own processes, and its own self-regard.

In the worst of times, the bullying and intimidation that permeates the place left me feeling suicidal. I have considered whether to delete or moderate the previous sentence, but I have left it in because it is true. Indeed, I feel lucky to have escaped with as few ‘bruises’ as I have. Indeed, I feel lucky to still be alive.

I can’t bear to think back to the darkest times, but in order give you a flavour of the atmosphere at NPL, I will recount one small but telling incident that occurred earlier this year.

The ‘Leaders Blog’

Senior NPL management write a ‘blog’ on the intranet describing their reflections on various matters.

In March, after I had already handed in my notice, the Chief Scientist wrote a blog announcing a complete change of focus for the lab. The details don’t matter, but it was a very significant announcement.

As usual – despite the significance of the announcement – there was no response to the blog article. This was completely normal because for ‘Staff’ to comment on anything that ‘A Manager’ had written was to ‘put one’s head above a parapet’. I normally ignored these articles, but someone drew my attention to it, and – since I was leaving anyway – I thought I would comment.

The details of what I said don’t matter – they were respectfully worded – but raised the question of how this massive change might be achieved.

What does matter is that several colleagues contacted me afterwards to thank me for pointing out that there was a problem with the Chief Scientist’s ‘vision’.

And what matters more is that my colleagues – including several of the most senior scientists at NPL – were scared to comment themselves. Scared. Literally frightened. Some would not communicate via NPL e-mail for fear of eavesdropping. They had families to care for and they feared for their careers.

I thought this was serious enough to mention on the internal blog. I wrote a second comment saying that:

Several colleagues have contacted me privately to express similar concerns to those I expressed. But they felt inhibited from commenting because of the implicit threat of management retaliation if they were seen to disagree with a senior manager.”

Now in a healthy organisation, several things might have happened at this point.

  • HR might have contacted me to say they were concerned about these allegations of intimidation.
  • The Chief Scientist themselves might have expressed similar concerns.
  • A senior manager might have commented that in fact they welcomed dissenting views.

In fact what happened was… nothing.

The truth is that the air of intimidation and bullying at NPL was not news to anybody.

Indeed when I had previously mentioned the issue of bullying to my HR representative they indifferently responded that “...it was HR’s job to enforce management policy…”.

Working in that kind of toxic atmosphere I felt like my soul was rotting.


22 Responses to “Why did I leave NPL?”

  1. Nick Day Says:

    Should I, shouldn’t I… comment on the date of the photo?

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Nick: Thank you. It was 2019. I do try to proof read everything I write, but although I had paid attention to the text, I forgot the photo. Grrrr. Thanks for pointing it out.

    • edhui Says:

      There’s nothing wrong with the photo or the date. Now he’s left NPL he’s not going to age in the next 9 years, and while he was there he’s acquired the time travel abilities to take the photo.

  2. edhui Says:

    Its a harrowing account. I have been in a similar situation for a much shorter period many years ago, before children. It’s easy when you have no responsibilities to say to management that the situation is uncivilised and unless they change it, you’re out, and I did that at the time. Much to my surprise I got the change I demanded and stayed happily at the company for another 6 months. What so many people don’t realise is that family will always support that stance (after the initial shock). We need to teach our children that intelligent, hard working people in this country do not have to stay in an abusive employment to support their family, and to trust in that fact. If everybody had made a stand, changes would have happened. It’s the fear in the victims that keeps the abusers in power. Here and in the White House and everywhere in between. You need to feed the family, but the family doesn’t want to be fed that way. We need to put it in the curriculum.

  3. Ronald Eldridge Says:

    Michael, I can identify with and sympathise with your feelings and sentiments having worked in a similar toxic environment for many years. The so called friendly word in your ear, the overt threats and bullying and good and able clinicians silenced for fear of retribution or being labelled as difficult,
    There were just 3 – 4 outspoken “Difficult “ ones in our team of 15 or so. Your brother Charles among them, it must run in the family 😏. We have all retired now early or otherwise and the relief is palpable. Lowered blood pressure, reduced medication, more time with my previously long suffering family and a much, much happier human being.
    I wish you every happiness.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Ronald, Thank you for your empathy and kind thoughts. My brother is an inspiration to me and I have seen how much happier he has become since leaving work. I am hoping to follow in his footsteps! Best wishes. Michael

  4. Ciro Alberto Sánchez Says:

    Thanks for sharing.this.

  5. David Edwards Says:

    Michael, I enjoy reading your blogs, but this is a tough one. Did the NPL change after Serco took over?
    You may not be impressed to learn that Sir Richard Tetley Glazebrook was my grandmother’s uncle. It’s a tenuous connection, but I like to bask in the dimly reflected glory.
    I wish you a happy future, during which you will continue to look younger!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      David, thanks for your kind words. I don’t intend to go on at length at about my time at NPL especially since my experience is actually pretty common these days. I mentioned it because after many years of not mentioning it even when I felt desperate, I needed to just say it.

      Yes, NPL did change when Serco took over, but the current incarnation of management are IMHO much worse than Serco. The days of Glazebrook are days we will not see again!

      Anyway, every best wish.


  6. Simon Says:

    MIchael, One word from this still-employed-by-NPL former colleague, – Solidarity! I aspire to say more, but that will be by another medium 😉

  7. Claire Says:

    Thank you for sharing the story Michael. I used to work at MSL with Rod and never got to meet you but have known your name around the place for a long time. This is brave and important and I am glad you are getting better.

  8. Maciek Says:

    Hi Michael !!
    I am shocked and not at the same time since this dark side of NPL always have been there. There is also another problem at NPL that was silenced through, by many very clever people, namely financial frauds – bailout; call it whatever you want. Maybe eventually somebody will look into these aspects too. Typically authorities will pay attention into fraud concerning their monies, rather than bullying individuals. Sad true, but perhaps an opportunity to pull out all the shit to the surface.
    I am glad you finally made and could make this step to leave; hope you will recover very soon!

    There is no doubt that you were one of the greatest minds I meet at NPL. Always admired your passion, dedication and your honourable qualities, yet to not undermine the greatness of your science and wisdom. So fingers crossed for you, wish you best luck I hope you will be able to carry on with all your passions even to greater extend now!

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Maciek, thank you for your kind words. I am hoping that my energy will be shortly restored.

      Regarding financial misdeeds at NPL: I have never seen any direct proof of such occurrences, but there have been many events which could appear ‘odd’ when looked at in a certain light. But I have washed my hands of NPL. As I said in the blog, my stomach still tightens and I begin to feel queasy whenever I think about the place.

      Every best wish


  9. Alexandre Cuenat Says:

    What a powerful read. It is always distressing – disgusting?- to read about situations where the mental health of employees is not duly taken into account. As an ex-NPL, I am not going to extend too much, let’s just say that we all know we lost something along the way.
    You are one of the best scientists and passionate communicators I know. So thank you for being such an inspiration and I am sure I will hear more from you soon.
    All the best to you and your family.


    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Alexandre, It is lovely to hear from you and thank you for your kind words. As you say so well, NPL has ‘lost something along the way’.
      Every best wish to you and yours.

  10. David Buckley Says:

    I followed you on AskNPL and I left at the same time as you during this Covid lockdown. I cannot say that I had the experience you had over 20 years, I lasted less than 2 but I knew this wasn’t a place that respected scientists or even knew how a business should operate. Your honest views on the forum before you left really helped me so thank you!

  11. Laurie Says:

    Oh Michael, what a brave post. I must admit, I cheered at some of your comments (you can probably guess which ones!) but others were truly heartbreaking. And while I’m sorry for the loss to our global science community, I am exceptionally glad for you (and the family). Being able to B-R-E-A-T-H-E after so long a time must feel amazing 🙂 I hope you know how much good you did at NPL – I owe you such a lot. Many hugs from the other side of the world. I wish we’d had more time to catch-up in Wellington, but you have my email xxx

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