31 May 1996

Critical research being eroded, claims Labour

By Tony McDougal

LABOUR has attacked the governments decision to move towards privatising some of the UKs top agricultural science departments, claiming it is threatening critical research areas.

Andrew Ingram, shadow science and technology minister, accused the government of working to hurt science, claiming the news would serve only to demoralise further the UKs science base.

Mr Ingram said that although the prior options review process had been criticised across the industry, the government clearly wanted to proceed with wholesale privatisation.

He stressed Labour would halt the privatisation programme of public sector research establishments and set out to restore morale and commitment among public sector scientists.

"Our laboratories are a major national resource. Government should be giving them support rather than flogging them off. The quality of the advice that these establishments give is crucial as the BSE issue has shown. Hiving them off will only serve to reduce, not improve the quality of their scientific output," he added.

While the first tranche of reviews had not led to wholesale privatisation, cross-party MPs in the Commons have expressed concern about the future of both ADAS and Horticultural Research International in the public sectors.

Alan Howarth (Lab/Stratford-upon-Avon) said HRI was subjected to endless reform and restructuring in the 1980s but after a short period of stability, was again facing privatisation.

Jim Couchman (Con, Gillingham) said he was deeply concerned about the future of the horticultural research establishment at East Malling, Kent.

Responding, David Willetts (Con, Havant) stressed that no targets had been set to reduce numbers, adding the reviews were about getting better value for money and more effective research output.

The announcement brought concern from both the NFU and Country Landowners Association. Ben Gill, NFU deputy president, said he was pleased the institutes could continue to compete for research funding from the public sector.

But he added that the union was concerned that commercially driven research institutes could end up sacrificing the current scope of their work for financial gain.

George Dunn, CLA rural economic adviser, said the decision to place the Forestry Commissions research division into a next steps agency must not lead to the ending of important "technology transfer" work. &#42

Prior options review results

&#8226 Forestry Commissions research division to become a next steps agency.

&#8226 BBSRC Institutes: Institute for Arable Crops Research, Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, John Innes Centre and Silsoe Research Centre to retain their separate existence but proposals to move away from the public sector. Subject to further review.

&#8226 Scottish Office Institutes: Scottish Crop Research Institute, Scottish Agricultural Science Agency and Macaulay Land Use Research Institute as for BBSRC.

Britains research laboratories are a major national resource.