Handing Over The U.K. Chemist's Baton | May 26, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 21 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 21 | pp. 26-27
Issue Date: May 26, 2008

Handing Over The U.K. Chemist's Baton

New appointment aims to maintain cutting edge of statutory British office's analytical chemistry
Department: Business
LGC's Peter Stokes configures a source for imaging mass spectrometry.
Credit: Andrew Brookes
LGC's Peter Stokes configures a source for imaging mass spectrometry.
Credit: Andrew Brookes

ON JUNE 1, Britain gets a new government chemist. Derek Craston, whose Ph.D. is in enzyme electrochemistry and who joined the Laboratory of the Government Chemist in 1991, takes over the post from John Marriott. Marriott is retiring after six years as government chemist and R&D director at LGC, as the organization is now known.

As government appointments go, it's pretty low profile. Housed in a neat block of offices and labs in the leafy London suburb of Teddington, LGC is an enigma to many local residents. Some, in fact, are convinced it's a top-secret facility.

Top secret, however, it is not, despite the security typical these days for a chemistry research lab. Instead, LGC is busy maintaining its expertise in cutting-edge chemical analysis serving both the British government and, increasingly, a global customer base.

The appointment of Craston by the U.K.'s secretary of state for the Department of Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS) coincides with the launch of the latest three-year plan of scientific projects for the government chemist's program in the venerable LGC. Its legacy goes back to the creation of the post of government chemist by Parliament in 1842, when it set up the Laboratory of the Board of Excise to detect adulterants in tobacco.

From that tight focus, LGC has expanded its expertise into areas now covered by four divisions: LGC Forensics, Life & Food Sciences, LGC Standards, and Research & Technology.

One result is that revenues have nearly doubled in the past four years, according to LGV (formerly known as Legal & General Ventures), the private equity company that became LGC's majority owner in 2004. When the government privatized LGC in 1996, its revenues were about $30 million; they now are nearing the $200 million mark. Moreover, LGV points out, profits have increased 10-fold.

"The government chemist is a publicly funded function within a private-sector organization," Craston explains. When the British government privatized LGC, it did so with the proviso that it would appoint the government chemist, who must be an employee of LGC.

The government funding, explains Graham Reed, a program supervisor at DIUS, helps support the expertise needed for referee analysis in particular. Expertise in food safety and feed analysis, he emphasizes, "has to be done by somebody," hence its support of the function.

LGV acquired its stake in LGC with a strategy to combine organic growth and acquisitions. LGC now employs more than 1,200 workers in 21 labs and centers across Europe and in India. The labs enable LGC to deliver services for the British government and provide commercial services.

One of its tasks is providing the British government with advice on legislation, Craston says. "Our aim is to ensure that any new regulation or legislation is sound."

Credit: LGC
Credit: LGC

For example, LGC was involved in the recent development of REACH, the European Union's program to register, evaluate, and authorize chemicals. Its role, Craston notes, was specifically advising on measurements and compliance. "We worked with U.K. companies, doing case studies on measurement issues. Our work was more about helping U.K. companies comply with REACH rather than helping in the formulation of the legislation."

According to Jo Lloyd, technical director of the REACHReady program of the U.K.'s Chemical Industries Association, her group and LGC have worked together on several seminars aimed at helping downstream customers of the chemical industry comply with REACH. "LGC has a lot of expertise in testing for chemicals in finished goods???in toys, pens, clothing, and so on," so the seminars have a particularly strong appeal to people in the retail sector, she says.

The new three-year program for the government chemist, Craston says, includes a variety of projects, many focusing on the organization's activities in the food and animal feed sector.

According to Craston, "We have an advisory group that helps us make sure our work reflects where we should be going." Indeed, Reed says LGC is particularly good at horizon-scanning. At DIUS, Reed explains, "most of our programs are reasonably heavy in R&D. But LGC does research into development of methods that will be needed in the future. We're quite satisfied with their work."

When the government chemist is called upon as a referee analyst in a dispute, it is frequently under the provisions of the U.K.'s food safety and agriculture acts, involving LGC's Life & Food Sciences division, points out Michael Walker, the science manager of the program. Walker is a former standards enforcement scientist now serving as a consultant to the government chemist program.

In disputes over local testing, none of the parties know what the outcome will be, he points out. "Over the last two or three years, we have generally been confirming the local authority enforcement findings, but not always. We are viewed as independent and authoritative."

Similarly, global businesses have been shaping LGC's other business areas and its investments. Sitting in his office in Teddington, Craston emphasizes that "our research and technology is very much centered here—this is where the government chemist sits and where our cutting-edge investments are made. But we have labs across the U.K.—for example, forensics labs near major police locations, food labs near abattoirs, and so on."

LGC ALSO HAS a standards division producing reference materials that can be used for comparisons. That helps explain the company's labs in India. They supply pharmaceutical reference standards in one of the biggest regions for drug manufacturing.

In the company's forensics division, the latest introduction has been DNA SenCE, a method for analyzing tiny amounts of DNA that was launched in April and is already in use by several U.K. police forces.

LGC Forensics itself was created by LGC's 2005 acquisition of Forensic Alliance Ltd. The division now has six forensic labs in the U.K. and two in Germany. It provides a variety of casework and analytical services involving DNA, controlled drugs, toxicology, ecology, questioned documents, digital crime, firearms and ballistics, and forensic pathology.

LGC's other main responsibility is standards. As the National Measurement Institute for chemical and biological analysis, it is broadly equivalent to the National Institute of Standards & Technology in the U.S. and is charged with helping develop measurement techniques used in a wide sector of industries.

Craston acknowledges the dual nature of LGC and the challenges that dichotomy poses. "We are a private-sector company specializing in doing analytical measurements, and we have a role with government," he says.

But Walker, for one, is convinced that the dual nature is a strength for LGC. "LGC combines the flexibility and drive of a private enterprise with the ethos of excellence that is more the hallmark of a public organization," he says. "This is one reason we've been able to retain our people."

Craston agrees. "The synergy between the public funding and the critical mass of cutting-edge investment that LGC makes means that taxpayers get the best value for their money," he says. "We see ourselves very much as an independent, impartial organization that acts on sound science."

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