15 November 1996

Plea to halt funding cuts

Farmers need technology to remain competitive. But research funding is fast disappearing. Charles Abel reports from a meeting in Lincolnshire which considered the dilemma

DESPITE a turnover of £7bn from arable farming and horticulture, government is investing just £74m in research. At least two-thirds of that is on environmental measures rather than improving productivity.

The 1% of turnover that government reinvests in research and development equates to sunset technologies, stressed Dr Roger Turner, chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders and chairman of the governments technology foresight sub-group which is looking at the research needs of the cropping sector.

By comparison high technology industries like pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals invest 10-15% of annual turnover in research and development. Even less targeted industries spend 5-10%.

"Im not saying it should be 15%, but 1% certainly is not enough. We need to be sure we put funds in to build on todays success," said Dr Turner. When commercial research funding is included the figure only rises to 8%. And much of that focuses on development rather than basic research, he noted.

ARIA chairman Frank Oldfield reckoned France and Germany invest twice as much as the UK, putting the UK at a potential disadvantage.

"Rationalisation in the mid-80s saw government cut 21 research institutes back to eight. We all agreed at the time that was the critical mass needed for the industry. But theyve been cutting back ever since – some institutes could be losing up to £1m of MAFF funding in the coming budget."

Industry had helped plug the gap, he noted. "But I can assure you as a member of the HGCA that it is a drop in the ocean compared with whats needed."

In case growers felt they could survive without basic research, he stressed that it provided the foundation for all other trials and the guidance which comes from advisers, consultants and distributors. "They all need this work."

Mr Oldfield urged growers to let politicians know their fears. "If they get the wrong message they will think farmers dont really want all this money spending on basic research."

The technology foresight exercise, which is likely to influence future research funding, provides a prime opportunity to project the right message, Dr Turner added.

Put pressure on local politicians to halt cuts in research funding farmers were urged at the Arable Research Institute Association meeting. Speakers backing the call included (left to right): Dr Roger Turner, BSPB; Prof Ben Miflin, IACR; Frank Oldfield, ARIA; Dr Nick Cheffins, De Montfort University and Prof David Powlson, IACR Rothamsted.


R&D SQUEEZE


&#8226 UK losing competitivity?

&#8226 Government R&D funding is just 1% of arable/horticulture turnover.

&#8226 High-tech industries spend10-15% to be competitive.

&#8226 France and Germany spend double UK amount.

&#8226 All advice starts with R&D.