Posts Tagged ‘NPL’

A History of Bushy House

April 30, 2023

Friends, the other day I was fortunate enough to have dinner in the local landmark of Bushy House.

A view of Bushy House taken from Bushy Park this February.

At dinner, many people asked me – as a local – questions about the building which I was completely unable answer.

Wikipedia has a few words, but the best source by far is a history compiled by Peter Foster and Edward Pyatt for NPL in 1976. And by chance I came across a copy of this document while sorting through the library of my late father-in-law. And since I couldn’t see a copy on-line, I thought I would post a pdf of the document here. I do hope it is useful to some local Teddington historians.

You can download a low-resolution (2.9 Mb) copy from this link. If for some reason you feel the need for more resolution, please contact me and we can collectively figure out how to share the original 80 Mb scan.

Cover of the History of Bushy House




NPL Reflections: The Serco Legacy

June 30, 2020

It’s been two full months since I left NPL, and it still feels great!

But in quieter moments I have been reflecting on my time at NPL. And in particular, I have been reflecting on how NPL reached its current state, which – as I experienced it – featured a poisonous working environment, abysmal staff morale, and a management detached from reality. From comments on my previous post, my experience is not unique.

Happily the state of NPL is no longer my problem. But even so, I have decided to write about it because, as I experienced it, it was traumatic and tragic. And for years it was impossible to speak openly – NPL’s culture of fear was such that any discussion of NPL’s difficulties would be considered a disciplinary offence.

A recent comment on my previous post by “Bob” asked whether there was any “safe space” at NPL. Or any way to start “a conversation “with management. “Bob” asked how it was that one had to leave NPL in order to be able to discuss the abusive working culture! It’s a good question.

So this article is for “Bob” and his or her colleagues who still have to live with NPL’s poor working culture. It describes some previous attempts to “start a conversation” and what happened. It’s quite likely many people – even those working at NPL – were not aware of these past events.

Some people might think this kind of culture of fear is OK, and perhaps in private companies it might be understandable. But what about in public institutions that are being run on behalf of the Government by a private company? This has been the case at NPL where private companies have established a culture of fear to protect themselves from criticism. Even criticism which raises important issues which should be aired in the public interest since they are mainly spending public money.

What has happened at NPL is not, I think, unusual: it is part of the march of ‘managerialism’ – the belief by ‘managers’ in the special powers of ‘managers’. But that makes it no less regrettable.

In this article I am simply stating what has happened – as I experienced it. I am doing this because the alternative – staying silent now that I no longer have to experience it daily – feels like “letting the bullies win“. Writing this feels like the very minimum that I can do, but it still feels very difficult.


Looking back, the management company Serco – which ran NPL from 1995 until 2012 – seems to be at the root of many of NPL’s problems. Serco can do some things efficiently, but in retrospect, it was spectacularly ill-suited to running NPL, and – as I discuss below – it created a rift in the organisation between ‘management’ and ‘staff’ – the scientists and engineers who actually embody what NPL is about. As I see it, the poor working culture – the culture of fear that now permeates NPL – stems from this rift.

When I started working at NPL in April 2000, I was 40 years old and Serco had already been running NPL as a management contract for five years. For the first year or two, I came to work each day, went into a laboratory and did scientific experiments – it was great! I had very little to do with Serco and gave them no mind.

From my perspective, the changes at NPL came slowly, but they all came to one thing: a unique (albeit imperfect) working culture with two-way trust between management and scientists was trashed. In its place there has been a progressive glorification of ‘management’ and progressive growth in the institutionalised contempt for science and scientists, engineering and engineers.

How did this come about?

1:   Managers with Serco-vision

Back in 1995, Serco were unused to running scientific establishments and were proud of having won the contract to manage NPL. They saw NPL as a prestigious ‘win’ that added credibility to their expanding ambitions of managing activities on behalf of government. So, for the first few years, they adopted a hands-off management style that was quite well-suited to NPL.

A key step came when ‘management roles’ were made full-time. In retrospect it is surprising this took so long: Serco is a ‘management’ company and their core belief is that organisations are made of ‘managers’ and ‘staff’. Serco see managers as the key to every successful organisation, and ‘staff’ as ‘the problem’: what they – the managers – have to deal with.

Serco see ‘managers’ as embodying the organisation and they see ‘staff’ as being there to follow instructions: this is Serco-vision. Serco’s management challenge was that most people at NPL still thought of NPL as an institution of government that was, for the time-being, being managed on the government’s behalf by Serco. In contrast, Serco wanted to convince staff that NPL was a business; a part of Serco; and that it existed to make a profit.

The move to full-time managers created a management ‘cadre’ who – even if they were not actually paid by Serco – saw NPL through a Serco lens. Key parts of Serco-vision were focused on (paraphrasing) minimally-fulfilling contract specifications, and optimising profits. This vision generated a conflict with NPL working culture which (paraphrasing) sought to do the best possible work, but on a generally prolonged timescale.

Previously, scientists had taken on management tasks to a greater or lesser extent depending on their disposition and the needs of their particular group. ‘Science work’ and ‘management work’ both needed to be done. Having grown through the same system, managers and scientists shared – at least some – cultural assumptions about the value of NPL’s activities.

Serco instituted a policy where managers had to be full-time i.e. scientists had to choose to let go of management responsibilities, or let go of their scientific career. In general, staff who excelled at science chose science: staff who were not so good at science, chose management. This was the seed for a schism that has grown vast in recent years. And thus, the ‘failed’ scientists found themselves in charge!

Over time, managers who had been promoted from within their area of work (and thus had some amount of local expert knowledge and cultural understanding) came to be seen as ‘suspect’ – i.e. loyal to their team rather than to NPL senior management, and slowly managers with no knowledge of the details of the work of a team became the norm.

Really? Oh Yes. Managers with no knowledge of the technically complex areas they managed were preferred over those with knowledge of the area who might be sympathetic to the ‘staff’. In many areas the results were laughable. But managers with no knowledge of what their team were doing became the norm at NPL. And in fact, this is still common.

The managers cope using Serco-vision. They see all work as part of ‘a project’ which is viewed in terms of profit and loss, and capital and staff requirements. The technical aspects of a project (i.e. how it gets done) are seen as mere details that ‘staff’ can deal with.

2     Contempt for Science and Engineering

It had been commented many times that NPL was not really a single institution but a collection of one- or two-person ’boutique’ activities. This meant that there were problems in equitably assessing promotions and adequately rewarding staff.

Serco addressed this by instituting their vision of scientists’ jobs which they described in terms of Role Profiles and a Competency Dictionary. Each ‘role’ within NPL was characterised in extraordinary detail by the extent to which ‘staff’ required certain levels of competency in 15 key areas:

Customer Focus, Building Networks, Strategic Thinking, Commercial Awareness, Planning & Organising, Managing Change , Scientific Awareness, Quality Focus, Conceptual Thinking, Leadership & Team Motivation, Application of Knowledge, Working Together, Understanding Others, Communicating & Influencing, Achievement Drive.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that just one of those 15 key areas had the word ‘science’ in it. But even in this category, scientific or technical excellence was not valued. I won’t bore you with the details but even at the highest level, scientific knowledge was only useful to the extent that it generated business.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise: Serco only sees value in management. So the more like a manager you were – the more valuable you were. Technical skills such as “understanding science“, or “being good at doing experiments” or “understanding Maxwell’s equations“, did not even register.

So one’s career as a scientist depended on fulfilling these competencies and exhibiting particular ‘behaviours’ that demonstrated them. But only one tiny part of one competency referred to actually being professionally excellent at science! Damningly, the words ‘engineer’ and ‘engineering’ did not occur in the entire publication!

Whereas physics and engineering degrees devote perhaps 5% of a course to ‘soft skills’, in the eyes of Serco, 100% of what they valued were non-technical skills. And NPL still has an ongoing legacy of contempt for science and engineering that lives on a fortiori!

Management simply did not care about creating an organisation in which great science and engineering was valued. The entire organisation had been taken over by a cadre of people actively indifferent to science and engineering, and with a Serco-vision focus on profit. This was true back then and, based on my experience, I think it is true to an even higher order now.

3     2007 Grand Meeting

The strains on the organisation were becoming clear and in 2007, the then managing director Steve McQuillan called a couple of meetings of senior scientists with senior managers at (bizarrely) local racecourses: first Kempton Park and then Sandown. I should stress these meetings were not on race days ;-).

At the end of the second almost entirely pointless meeting there was a Q&A and the senior managers sat on stools at the front, ready to answer questions. After a few evasive answers to simple questions, the silence of people NOT asking questions became deafening. At this point Steve McQuillan took the microphone and said (to my great surprise!) “Well, if people feel unable to ask questions in this forum, why don’t they feed them through Michael.” and then he looked at me.

No one contacted me.

I thought about just letting it go, but then I reflected that this stuff mattered, and the next week I emailed all the senior scientists and said I would agree to act as a conduit to Steve McQuillan. I offered to anonymise any comments they had and feed them on. I got 14 responses which I duly anonymised and forwarded.

I was honoured that my colleagues had trusted me, because the culture of fear had already taken root. Even these very senior members of NPL feared the possibility of retribution if they were seen to openly disagree with managers.

I won’t offer the responses here, but they were all very tame. They consisted of the senior scientists respectfully suggesting how to do things better. Reading them, I thought this would be gold dust for managers!

And the response of management was… nothing. Despite having undertaken this task at the specific request of the managing director himself, I did not even receive an acknowledgement.

The reality was becoming clearer still: management did not care in the slightest about scientists’ unhappiness at the changes and did not care about ‘improving things‘. We were ‘staff’: Why should they care?

4     Serco-vision in action

NPL earned its money from government by deploying staff on activities agreed with the relevant government department. Projects would have ‘deliverables’ and when a ‘deliverable’ was complete, NPL would be paid.

Through the years, as managers grew in number and ‘professionalised’, the old habits of NPL began to fade. And new habits arose. Including the habit of needing to meet revenue targets for Serco Head Office.

Using Serco-Vision, managers looked at deliverables differently. The upshot of this was that we transitioned to a culture of marking things complete when they had only minimally been completed. So, for example, if a deliverable specified that “a prototype would be produced“, using Serco-vision, it might not matter whether or not the prototype worked.

When I read about the fraudulent activities that Serco oversaw in other contracts I immediately recognised the scenarios in which people felt their integrity was being challenged by a conflict between their loyalty to an institution, and their loyalty to the company who happened to be running the institution at the moment.


Looking back now, I reflect that, ten years in to my NPL career, there were several personal achievements.

  • I had been learning a lot of new physics.
  • I had been trusted by my colleagues to reflect their views to management.
  • I had begun the Protons for Breakfast course.
  • I had been awarded a medal by the Queen!
  • And, thanks to the foresight of my colleague Graham Machin, I had become involved in the most complex and challenging task of my career – measuring the Boltzmann constant.

But the general situation of NPL was developing badly. There was a growing schism between managers and scientists, and a culture of fear had been established by management to discourage any questioning of their decisions. And the tempo of work and the focus on profit was building.

I had thought that perhaps in 2012, when Serco lost the contract to manage NPL, we might have had the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had thought we might have taken that opportunity speak about the impact that Serco had had on NPL culture – and it was not all bad – and to think of a new way of working. But instead senior management doubled-down on Serco-vision and have thus driven NPL to its current state.

Of necessity, I have written here in general terms. And this article is already too long. But I do feel obliged to mention that there were, and still are, many kind and talented individuals amongst managers. And most of them are doing their best to cope with the way things are. And not all scientists and engineers are saints and geniuses. But the culture of fear is real, and it stems from the top of the organisation which glorifies ‘managers’ and ‘leaders’ even more than Serco.

Finally, I am aware that all institutions must change – and that this is not an easy process. But in retrospect, Serco simply had no meaningful ideas for running NPL other than making it look like their other contracts. And having worked under the current management for several years, they simply have no meaningful ideas at all – except for more managers!

Despite its problems, some good work is still being carried out at NPL. But as ‘old NPL’ staff have retired, and as replacement staff are employed on short-term contracts, I get the sense that fewer and fewer people believe in the importance of the institution of NPL. And like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, when people stop believing in something, it dies. And, ultimately that is why I am writing this. I feel that something is dying at NPL, and although I am sad about it, I am personally glad to be away from the stench.

Last words

I have set this article aside for a few days, and I have now looked to see if it is worth making public. Is it just me feeling angry or resentful towards NPL?

Well actually I don’t feel angry or resentful. As I mentioned at the start, I feel great!

But I do feel empathy for my ex-colleagues who have to put up with the culture of fear that emanates from senior management and HR. And although this article is not perfect, it does say one or two things that I feel need saying in public. And it tries to look at how things reached this sorry state. On balance I think it is worth publishing.

Note: If any staff at NPL would like to comment – privately or publicly – but are not able create anonymous dummy accounts then please feel free to e-mail me at . If you would like your comment to be public then please let me know and I will anonymise your comments and post them here.

Would you like to work with me?

July 29, 2017
Lab Panorama

The Acoustic Thermometry Lab at NPL (Photo by Sam Gibbs: thanks 🙂 )

Friends and colleagues,

  • Do you know anyone who would like to work with me?

In the next few months I expect to be starting some new projects at NPL. And this means that I will not be able to work on my existing projects 😦

So NPL have created the opportunity for someone to work with me to help complete those projects.

  • You can read about the job here.
  • It’s also on the NPL web site here where it’s the described as “Research Or Higher Research Scientist – Temperature & Humidity” reference 65552.

What’s involved?

Good question. And it is one that is still being decided.

But it would involve working mainly in the acoustic thermometry lab .

Lab Panorama with notes

In acoustic thermometry, the temperature of a gas is inferred from measurements of the speed of sound.

On the left-hand side of the picture is an apparatus that uses a spherical resonator to measure the speed of sound. It is the most accurate thermometer on Earth.

On the right-hand side of the picture is a new apparatus that uses a cylindrical resonator to measure the speed of sound and has been designed to operate up 700 °C.

The job would involve learning about these techniques but that wouldn’t be the main activity.

Running around the lab is 50 metres of bright yellow tubing that we refer to as ‘an acoustic waveguide’.

By measuring the transmission of sound along the tube it is possible to turn it into a useful thermometer. I hope.

Finding out whether this can be made to work practically would be one part of the job. And testing the same idea is smaller tubes would be another.

Finally, by measuring the speed of sound in air it is possible to measure the temperature of the air and we would like to investigate applications of this technology.

What does the job involve?

Well it will involve learning a lot of new stuff. Typically projects involve:

  • Programming in Labview to control instruments and acquire and analyse data.
  • Writing spreadsheets and reports and PowerPoint presentations.
  • Keep track of stuff in a lab book.
  • Using acoustic and optical transducers
  • Signal processing
  • Electronics
  • Mechanical design and construction.
  • Vacuum and gas handling systems – ‘plumbing’.

And lots more. And the chance that someone with those skills will walk through the door is pretty low.

So prior knowledge is great but the key requirement is the mindset to face all those unknown things without letting the bewilderment become overwhelming.

So we are looking for someone with enthusiasm.


Learning new stuff is painful. Especially when it seems endless.

So I couldn’t imagine working with someone who wasn’t enthusiastic about the miracle of physics.

And there is one benefit which isn’t mentioned in the advert.

To cope with the inevitable disappointments and to reward ourselves for our minor successes, our research group has freely available Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers.

Anyway, if this person isn’t you, please do pass on the opportunity to anyone you think might be interested.

The closing date for applications is 28th August 2017.


NPL Laboratory Doors

April 23, 2015
Just one of several hundred signs on NPL Laboratory Doors. The movie below has them all!

Just one of several hundred signs on NPL Laboratory Doors. The movie below has them all!

I am currently in Lisbon attending the ANIMMA 2015 conference.

  • Advancements in Nuclear Instrumentation Measurement Methods and their Applications

I gave my talk yesterday which means I can relax a bit more now.

The talk included a live demonstration of a new type of thermometer which I hope will prove useful to someone here.

The talk went well. By this I mean that the talk was followed by many questions rather than deadly silence.

And the demonstration worked! The thermometer is an acoustic thermometer consisting of a tube with a tiny microphone and speaker at one end.

I used the microphone/loudspeaker connection on my laptop to ping sound along a tube and measure the echo.

And using clever software written by colleagues I could work out the temperature.

I think the simplicity of the demonstration convinced people that the technique was real rather than just another idea.

I hope so because many people worked very hard for years to make it that simple!

NPL Doors

While I am away, I hope you enjoy the movie at the head of the page.

I made it a few months ago by walking up and down every corridor in NPL taking a picture of the title of each lab door.

It took more than two hours just to take the pictures! But the movie takes only a little over 4 minutes.

My aim was to try to capture the diversity of activities at NPL.

I hope you enjoy it and find at least one lab door with an intriguing title.






July 12, 2012
Gianluca Memoli views the world through a bubble. But then don't we all?

Gianluca Memoli views the world through a bubble. But then don’t we all?

Do you think of bubbles as objects of childish fascination? Beautiful, ephemeral, but ultimately peripheral to the main branches of science, life, and business? Well if you did think that, then that would be a BIG mistake. Because bubbles of one kind or another are absolutely central to your life.

Last weekend I got to help at the NPL stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. It was a busy day and by the end of it my voice was hoarse. My reward was that I reminded myself – with a little help from my colleague Gianluca Memoli – just how ubiquitous and important bubbles are.

  • I remembered that all biological life consist of cells, which are nothing more than bubbles formed spontaneously when fats (lipids) are mixed with water. The miracle of life itself exists only inside a protective bubble!
  • I remembered returning a kettle to John Lewis because it was too noisy – noise created by the bubbles in the water.
  • I remembered that the golden sound of the sea upon the shore – Shhhhhh…….. Shhhhhhh…… is nothing more than the sound of bubbles collapsing.
  • I remembered that when we wait for bread to bake and reach its optimal state of scrumptious edibility – we are simply waiting for the bubbles inside it to reach the right size.
  • I remembered that I love champagne, a wine in which the value is increased ten-fold because of the presence of bubbles.
  • I remembered that I owe the value of my house the existence of a property bubble – wait a minute! That’s not Physics!

On the NPL stand Gianluca was explaining how sound – more generally ultrasound – could be used to create, move and manipulate bubbles. And if his research pans out as planned, he will be able to use the oscillations of micro-bubbles to measure the properties of fluids.

As I wandered back to Waterloo Station across the Hungerford Bridge I gazed across the bustling river at the hubbub of the South Bank. Reflecting on those things which rivers make one reflect upon, I realised that I was lost in nothing less than a …thought bubble. Bubbles really are everywhere: watch out for them!

The colour of heavy water

July 4, 2010
NPL Heavy Water Sample

NPL Heavy Water Sample

I love working at NPL! Over lunch the other day I spoke with my colleague Richard Rusby about my doubts over the explanation I had read about the colour of the sea. This explanation stated that the sea is blue because water is ‘blue’. And the justification for this assertion was that molecular vibrations of the hydrogen in the H2O absorbed red light – a verifiable fact. However the colloquial justification of a nameless colleague was that if a vial of water was compared with a vial of ‘heavy water’ the ordinary water looked noticeable blue. Richard said that whenever I wanted I should ‘pop down’ and he would show me a vial of heavy water. Wow! It transpired that Richard had had a vial of heavy water around for many years without quite knowing what to do with it!

The Comparison and the Amazing Discovery

The comparison was disappointing because there is no noticeable difference in the colour of vials of heavy water and regular water. Normal water does not appear even slightly ‘blue’ when held against regular water. Clearly there is more to investigate here.

However the sample of heavy water was amazing!

Label showing heavy water sample was obtained in 1935!!

Label showing heavy water sample was obtained in 1935!!

First of all, it was stored in a solid wood block with a type written label stating it was made in 1935! Opening it up (see top picture) it was clear that it had been made at the Norsk Hydro plant in Norway.  According the ever reliable Wikipedia this plant only began production in 1935. This was the same plant that was  the object of a daring commando  raid in the second world war to prevent the Nazi from creating a nuclear bomb. And I held in my hand a sample from the first year of production of that factory.

I felt shaky all afternoon. I had held a piece of history in my hands – an object that not so long ago people would have given their lives to possess. I still don’t know how to proceed about the colour of the sea issue, but I feel – astounded to have encountered a vial of heavy water of such esteemed pedigree. And it had been in a cupboard in my own department all these years! I love working at NPL.

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