MPs call for review into 'research sabotage'

MPs call for review into 'research sabotage'

A group of cross-party MPs and Lords has called for an independent review of plans to close Britain’s leading laboratory for agricultural research in the wake of fears that it will jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet food security challenges.

On behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, chair Jane Kennedy MP has voiced concerns over plans to close the world-renowned 192-hectare Wellesbourne site of Warwick HRI, formerly Horticulture Research International, and transfer all research to a new School of Life Sciences on the Warwick main campus from 2012.

In letters to Environment Secretary Hilary Benn and the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, Kennedy warned that not only were there “already serious concerns about the progressive erosion over the last 25 years of the UK’s capabilities and infrastructure for applied agricultural and horticultural research and development”, but that the closure would see “most of the academic staff facing redundancy alongside large numbers of post-doctoral researchers, scientific technicians and skilled farm staff.”

The concerns are echoed by Prospect, the union representing staff at the site. Kenilworth MP Jeremy Wright will visit on Thursday (April 1) to hear first-hand the flaws in the merger plan, which have been outlined in a separate letter earlier this month to the Vice-Chancellor Professor Nigel Thrift, and signed by 36 members of staff.

Among them is a bias in the plans for the new Life Sciences school towards teaching rather than research. The letter warns: “This will result in a second-class, run-of-the-mill department focussed on teaching, which is not a successful model for the research ethics framework.”

It also warned that: “In spite of global recognition of the importance of this research in the 21st century, the University of Warwick is moving backwards and is set to lose more than 50% of its research in these areas – much to the amazement of many inside and outside the university. This will retard Warwick’s strategy to be within the top 50 global universities by 2015.”

Dave Chandler, Principal Investigator and Prospect representative at Warwick HRI, said: “We are at the start of a global food and environmental crisis and the UK needs experienced agricultural scientists more than ever if we are to deliver on government commitments on food security. However the agricultural research base in this country is on its last legs.”

Welcoming the call for an independent review into the merger, Nigel Titchen, Vice-President of Prospect, said: “The closure of the internationally renowned Warwick HRI site and the loss of its scientists would be a national disaster.

“At a time when the threat to food security posed by population growth, climate change and environmental degradation is a major concern to the UK, it is simply inconceivable that such a vital national research asset should be lost to the nation.

“Prospect firmly believes that Hilary Benn should personally intervene to ensure that the UK’s agri-food science base is not sabotaged but protected for the benefit of this and all future generations.”

Warwick HRI currently employs about 36 academic staff at principal investigator level, together with 175 research and support staff, plus PhD and Msc students. The department receives guaranteed funding of £5m per annum from Defra, which is set to fall to £200,000 by 2012.

In February, Warwick also closed the WHRI technology transfer site at Kirton, Lincolnshire despite staff and industry concerns.

Jane Kennedy MP has also tabled an Early Day Motion on the issue.