Fury over handling of Wellesbourne plans

The University of Warwick has sparked widespread anger across the industry after offering horticulture representatives just three days to "consult" on the amalgamation of Warwick HRI at Wellesbourne into a life sciences department, writes Magda Ibrahim.

Under the plan, HRI researchers will be co-located with Biological Sciences department staff in a School of Life Sciences to be based at the main campus.

Industry figures fear the move is an indication that Wellesbourne could close in 2012 when transitional Defra funding runs out, leading to the loss of critical near-market applied horticultural R&D.

The university has confirmed around one-third of academic staff are recommended for redundancy. It is recommending the new School of Life Sciences be established with between 55 and 60 academic posts. There are currently 89 such posts across Warwick HRI and the Biological Sciences department.

A source, who did not wish to be named, said that was likely before the end of the financial year.

In an email sent to key industry figures last Friday (6 November), interim chairman of the University of Warwick's School of Life Sciences Professor Stuart Palmer asked for comments on the proposals before 12 November, though there was no mention of the job losses.

Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg said: "As one of the main sources of the applied R&D funding that goes into Wellesbourne, I am shocked that a full consultation exercise has not been undertaken."

Bragg's open email to Palmer, which highlighted HW's Save Our Science campaign, also slammed the university for its apparent lack of interest in industry's concerns.

A Life Sciences Advisory Group established to develop proposals for the future direction of the new school has recommended it be based on four broad research areas: redesigning plants; controlling infection; shaping the environment; and integrating cellular systems.

National Horticultural Forum chairman Andrew Colquhoun said he was disappointed by the "scant detail" about the research areas.

"It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the university is planning to abandon the sort of applied research which the horticultural sector values so much," he warned.

"If the university is to avoid accusations of bad faith in the way in which it is planning to make such serious changes, then I believe a more substantial process of consultation with industry is required."

Palmer said he "envisaged that [work] will continue to be based across both campuses until 2012 at least". However, there is no commitment to staying at Wellesbourne post-2012 and a university representative told HW that the site was losing £2m each year.

HTA director general David Gwyther told HW he was "appalled" by the lack of proper consultation with industry. He planned to urge Defra secretary Hilary Benn to examine the potential loss of applied R&D during a Commons industry meeting held as HW went to press on Tuesday (11 November).

"This is yet another body-blow to horticulture and its ability to sustain itself with good R&D," he said, adding that a "very clear and strong message" would be given to Benn about the need for Wellesbourne.

Shadow Defra minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach said he would demand an explanation from the University of Warwick.

"To expect proper consultation in such a short time is totally unreal," he said. "It will be a very bad thing for the industry and I am very unhappy about it."

Commercial Farmers Group chairman Mark Tinsley added: "The way we are reading it is that [the university] may well be preparing the ground for closing Wellesbourne after 2012."

Stockbridge Technology Centre chief executive Graham Ward explained it was "understandable" for the university to move away from applied research, when funders' primary focus is now on pure science. "It is a further indication that there's a fundamental gap developing between pure research and growers," he explained. "There is no funding at the moment for applied scientists to fill the gap."

 

Wellesbourne timeline

2004 University of Warwick paid Defra £2.51m to transfer Wellesbourne's freehold on condition that any sale or development prior to 2019 would require a percentage of the proceeds going to Defra

2004 Defra granted Warwick HRI a research contract worth £36.2m to run to 2012

2008 Suggestions for Warwick HRI in the draft Stratford-on-Avon District Local Development Framework feature proposals for affordable housing, as well as research-based business

November 2009 Around a third of academic posts are recommended for redundancy and university's senate will discuss plans on 16 November

December 2009 Warwick HRI director Professor Simon Bright will retire at the end of the month

 

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