A delegation of scientists from Horticulture Research International will meet Lord Whitty in Whitehall to press for a decision on HRI’s future, six months after an internal review recommended it should be taken out of DEFRA, its parent body.
Speaking at the launch of the Royal Show in Stoneleigh, Nigel Titchen, president of Prospect’s science, engineering and technology group, said: "Delay and indecision by DEFRA are causing morale problems among HRI staff and the horticulture industry alike. But the real tragedy of these unnecessary proposals is that DEFRA will damage the quality of research carried out for an industry that generates £2 billion of turnover for UK plc each year."
Scientists from HRI and other Prospect members will be lobbying visitors to the Royal Show for the next four days – including farmers, growers, policy makers, pressure groups and other key sectors of the agriculture industry – to keep horticulture research in the public sector.
By April 2004, DEFRA wants to transfer HRI’s headquarters facilities and laboratories at Wellesbourne to the University of Warwick; and its prestigious top and soft fruit site at East Malling, Kent, into the hands of an independent trust.
But problems over the cost of the moves and pensions provision in the successor organisations have thrown both transfers into doubt.
The cost guarantees that DEFRA would have to give the University of Warwick exceed the current cost of support for Wellesbourne; and the Government Actuary’s Department has ruled that staff cannot be transferred into the University Superannuation Scheme until it is amended to provide comparable benefits to those in the research councils’ scheme.
Titchen warned: "The alternative is closure, with the loss of 500 skilled scientific jobs that at present help to keep 150,000 people in rural communities in employment." Even on the best scenario a minimum 180 redundancies at HRI are planned by the department.
The union will call on the minister to abandon the badly thought out plans for HRI, and to retain it as a unified entity in the public sector while reforming its funding and managerial structures so that it can deliver an enhanced service.
Prospect has already secured a commitment from Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, that if talks to save HRI founder, he will raise the issue with the government’s chief scientific adviser because of the damage closure would cause to the UK science base.
If the Warwick takeover does go ahead, said Titchen, Prospect would refer it to the National Audit Office on grounds of waste of public funds.
In September 2002 a quinquennial review of HRI’s role and functions by DEFRA recommended replacing the centre’s current structure. In January 2003 Lord Whitty gave the go-ahead for negotiations on a new structure but a final decision was postponed beyond the declared deadline of 31 March 2003.