Standard bearer

The new chief scientist at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory says cutting-edge research will help maintain its position as the final arbiter on standards. Max Glaskin reports

John Pethica was packing his bags. The recently appointed chief scientist of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) was about to fly to Bangalore, India, for more meetings in his seemingly never-ending quest to cement the link between science and the engineered world. After 10 days he would return to Europe to continue in his roles as the Science Foundation Ireland professor of material science at Trinity College, Dublin, and visiting professor in the materials department at Oxford University.

Talking energetically about his ambitions for NPL, where he will spend half his week, Pethica is unquestionably focused on the job in hand, while also casting ahead to consider potential developments.

His responses to enquiries are frequently prefaced with the caveat ‘There are two answers to that question.’ This may be a reflection of his multi-tasking but is more likely a result of his desire to cover the matter comprehensively. Either way, he is compelling and persuasive.

So what is he doing as chief scientist at NPL, which has the apparently arcane function of ‘developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards, science and technology’?

‘There are two answers to that,’ he said. ‘The first is to make sure that the lab has the cutting-edge research to remain a serious player in the world. The second is to exploit that science in supporting the quality of measurements and standards. NPL is supplying primarily measurement services and we must continue to make sure that everything it does is supported by science.’

But with national measurement institutions and corporate laboratories all over the world, why do we need to have one of our own? Surely PTB in Germany and NIST in the US have got most of the angles covered and multinationals are happy setting their own standards? ‘There are two ways of looking at that,’ said Pethica, responding to the provocation with equanimity. ‘NPL provides the ultimate in confirmation when it says that something meets a standard which a corporation claims it is meeting. And it is desirable for a nation to have an interest in the process by which those standards are set, to support its own corporations. There is constant evolution in new areas, such as pharmaceutical processes, and it’s advisable to get in there first.’

In that sense NPL provides powerful, scientifically-backed arguments in the diplomacy between competing countries to lay down the laws by which all will have to operate, from cast iron foundries to software developers.

Pethica believes NPL is one of the three leading standards institutes in the world, up there with PTB and NIST. ‘But you get greater efficiency per buck from NPL than from other standards institutions because they are funded far more heavily,’ he claimed.

NPL has chosen carefully the areas in which it should get involved. ‘A national measurements institution has to decide where its strengths lie and to play to them,’ said Pethica. ‘It should also look at the areas in which it is quite close to the leading edge in case opportunities or needs arise that require its involvement. And, of course, there may be strategic requirements for it to get involved in a certain area.’

So NPL has particularly strong groups in materials characterisation, something which has stood UK industry in good stead. It is also dominant in biomaterials, nanotechnology, optics and quantum systems. ‘We have quite a powerful role in the core measurements, the SI units. We are working with others at the moment on a more reliable way to measure the kilogram,’ said Pethica, looking forward to the day when a platinum-iridium alloy cylinder in the vault of the International Bureau International des poids et Mesures in France is no longer the final word in weights.

This is all very well and can seem to the outsider fascinatingly esoteric but Pethica is nothing if not a realist. He has his feet firmly planted in the commercial world and is quick to recognise that a worthwhile standards institution will offer significant benefits to industry.

So what is NPL doing for the UK’s engineering industry? ‘Our primary offer is a measurement service,’ he said. ‘How good is that coating? Have I got my synchronisation right in my software? NPL can answer those questions with authority. It provides a back-stop for a whole range of queries. It also provides codes of practice to industry, to make sure things are done in the correct way to ensure the desired result. NPL can say, these are the steps to take and this is the order in which to take them so that no mistakes are introduced.’

He is keen for NPL to offer more to industry. ‘I’m pushing for the development of IT protocols because we’re not involved so much in those standards at the moment. NPL has a famous track record in this area with packet switching, which still forms the basis of computer communications worldwide today, having been developed by Donald Davies in the 1960s,’ said Pethica.

‘Of course, NPL responds to the kind of industry that you have in the country. That’s one reason why there’s a strong emphasis in materials research, quality control, materials analysis and the like. We are the reference lab that has to be providing the cutting-edge service. As industrial systems get more complex, the protocols also get more complex and we have the expertise to handle that.’

Pethica has great sympathy with engineers. ‘Let’s face it, the engineer is under pressure in industry,’ he said. ‘The right support through providing validation, protocols and standards can help.’ As an example of NPL being ready to react to technological developments that will require new protocols and standards, Pethica cites the increasing use of radiation in diagnostic medical devices. ‘That’s going to need one hell of a lot of measurement, what with multiple beams and multiple paths.’

NPL is already called upon by a diverse group of organisations. It has analysed materials on behalf of the FIA, Formula One’s governing body, to ensure racing teams are not cheating by using exotic materials (see ‘Material Witness’, The Engineer, 12 April 2006). It has built the world’s most accurately measured anthropometric model so body scanners can be calibrated. It built the world’s first caesium atomic clock in 1955 since when it has not let time stand still, for itself or any industrialised country. Time is now the vital component for all global navigation satellite systems, includingthe developing European Galileo constellation.

Pethica is keen to accelerate the momentum that NPL has acquired over the decades. ‘NPL has great ambitions,’ he said. ‘It can increase the effectiveness of industry and assist with the transfer of research and development into actual products and services.’ There may be two parts to his answers but he is nothing if not single-minded.