Lab closure is ‘scientific vandalism’ says union


Lab closure is ‘scientific vandalism’ says union

Scientists at Britain’s leading laboratory for agricultural research has accused the University of Warwick of seeking to destroy the UK’s premier facility for investigating crop science, horticulture and food security.

Members of the Prospect union for professionals were protesting at damaging proposals that the University of Warwick adopted at the meeting of its Senate.

The controversial plan includes closing down the world-renowned 192-hectare Wellesbourne site of Warwick HRI, formerly Horticulture Research International, which the University of Warwick took over in 2004. All research work will be transferred to a new School of Life Sciences on the Warwick main campus from 2012. Thirty per cent of staff will be made redundant, including principal investigators, research and support staff.

Warwick HRI members of Prospect point out that their laboratory was ranked the UK’s top university department for agriculture, veterinary and food science in the 2008 research assessment exercise by the Higher Education Funding Council. In response to the report, Prospect told the University Senate:

“We are particularly concerned that the proposal will impair the UK’s research capacity in agricultural sciences, especially in disciplines such as soil science, agronomy, plant pathology, entomology, and ecosystem science.”

Nigel Titchen, Vice-President of Prospect, said: “This is nothing short of scientific vandalism. The University has totally ignored the well-founded concerns of staff, the industry and funders and is ploughing ahead with an ill-conceived plan that will delude the UK of vital horticultural research capability at a time of widespread public concern over food security.”

The Wellesbourne site is based around a working farm and has unique laboratory, glasshouse and field facilities, which are also used by other leading research organisations and industry bodies.

Titchen added: “World food production has to double by 2050 to keep up with population growth. Warwick HRI does vital research on how to grow more food without damaging the environment. The University plans will wreck this globally important work.”

Prospect says the report of the Warwick advisory group:

  • Makes no sense on economic, public health, food security or environmental grounds
  • Takes no account of funding sources available from Defra, the Technology Strategy Board or industry
  • Focuses on basic research, instead of key disciplines in agricultural science that the Royal Society has recognised as being in urgent need of investment
  • Ignores the translation of research into practice, a key aim of Government and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
  • Has no policy for engagement with industry or to seek multi-donor funding.
Commenting on the decision, Carol Evered, chair of the local Prospect section said: “We are all very worried about our jobs and concerned for the future of the research that is done on this site.”

A senior researcher at HRI added: “There is a looming global food crisis: our country needs scientists who can help feed the world. But British agricultural research has been starved of funds for the last 20 years. Many people here have devoted their lives to finding better ways for growing food. We are desperately worried that this vital work will be cut because of short-term thinking by the University.”

In its counter-submission to the University’s Senate, Prospect said Warwick had ignored the recent Royal Society report ‘Reaping the Benefits,’ which highlights the chronic lack of investment in agricultural science over the last 20 years and calls for funding to be directed to food crop production such as agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany, soil science, environmental microbiology, weed science and entomology.

Only 11 days notice of the proposals was given to staff via their union, and there was no prior consultation with policy makers or funders (Defra, BBSRC or the Agriculture Development and Horticulture Advisory Board). The University has already given notice that redundancy selection procedures and job interviews of staff will be initiated next month.

Titchen called for fresh proposals to be drawn up, in partnership with all stakeholders, which would allow the University to prosper whilst protecting the UK’s vital research capacity in agricultural and horticultural sciences. The Prospect section will meet tomorrow to decide what action to take to get the decision reversed.

WHRI currently employs about 35 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.