Vital Fera science must not be overtaken by commercial interests

Vital Fera science must not be overtaken by commercial interests

Good-quality, long-term science must not be endangered by the government’s privatisation of the Food and Environment Research Agency, Prospect said today (Wednesday).

The union representing 400 scientists at the organisation was responding to the change in Fera’s status, approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, from 1 April. Fera is entering a joint venture with Capita – which has paid an initial £20m for a 74% stake – and Newcastle University.

“This has been an anxious time for members,” said Prospect national secretary Geraldine O’Connell. “Sadly, our experience of the privatisation of other public sector scientific organisations has not been encouraging.

“We will want to ensure that the new provider focuses on delivering good quality, long-term science and is not simply concerned with making money. Equally, we will be seeking commitments from Capita to safeguard the future of the workforce and all their terms and conditions of employment.”

O’Connell stressed that government policymakers must continue to have access to Fera’s critical and unique scientific knowledge. “Fera plays a crucial role in supporting safe food, grown in an environmentally sustainable way. This is of fundamental importance to the UK,” she said.

“The scientists at Fera focus on finding real, practical, solutions to solve problems throughout the agri-food supply chain. They also identify and monitor the disease and chemical risks within this supply chain.”

Fera provides diagnostic and forensic support to the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate, the Genetic Modification Inspectorate and the National Bee Unit (partly based in Fera), and advises the policy units overseeing these areas. “All three areas are critical to the biosecurity of the UK,” stressed O’Connell.

Also crucial is the scientific support provided on quarantine plant pests and pathogens, invasive species and analysis of potentially illegal genetically modified organisms.