In the letter, Prospect members dispute Lord Sainsbury’s comments to the Science and Technology Select Committee that particular areas of research need the multi-disciplinary environment of a university to create world-class science. They were supporting a campaign by their union to avert the closure of four sites in the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
In their letter, they state: "Inter-disciplinary research is in fact one of the reasons that CEH exists and is one of its great strengths. We have many projects involving ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, social scientists, atmospheric physicists and chemists, statisticians and database experts, all of them members of CEH staff."
The scientists’ union points to a recent science and management audit of the centre which found that CEH already undertakes "world-class science." The long-term monitoring it conducts provides the evidence base for a range of government policy, from climate change and the energy debate to the impact of the developing drought in the south-east on water supplies and the ecology of the area.
But, Prospect warned, such long-term monitoring is threatened by the Natural Environment Research Council’s plans to axe laboratories at Winfrith in Dorset, Monk’s Wood in Cambridgeshire, Banchory in Scotland, and Oxfordshire, with the loss of a third of the organisation’s internationally recognised scientists.
Commenting on Lord Sainsbury’s arguments, Prospect National Secretary Tony Bell said: "Many of CEH’s ground-breaking projects already operate in close collaboration with universities but this does not mean to say that work axed at CEH would automatically transfer to the universities.
"Experience after the BSE and foot and mouth epidemics shows there are no guarantees that if work is not undertaken by the public sector it will be conducted elsewhere, leaving the UK scrambling around when the next crisis occurs.
"Research institutes provide a continuity of staffing that universities cannot, because of high turnover among PhD and post-graduate students. This means individuals can build up expertise over many years, providing specialist advice across many collaborative ventures, which would be lost in a shift to university-based, project-driven teams."