Hilary Benn summons university chief over future of HRI Wellesbourne horticultural research station

HW has learned that Defra secretary Hilary Benn has summoned Professor Stuart Palmer, the interim chair of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, for talks about the future of horticultural research station HRI Wellesbourne.

The news follows industry talks on 2 March, chaired by Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board chief scientist Ian Crute, about the future of the site once HRI Wellesbourne is amalgamated into a new life science school.

Over the next six to eight weeks, Professor Tim Jones, from the university's chemistry department, will hold individual meetings with stakeholders to formulate a plan for a possible industry-led research unit to retain applied R&D activity.

Crute said: "It all seems to hang on the way in which this unit will be separate from university financial accounting. My sense is that the ambition is to start something fairly modest but robust."

NFU, HTA, National Horticultural Forum, Defra's farming and food science deputy director Sue Popple and Beddington's colleague Elizabeth Warham all attended.

Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg said: "Warwick HRI has been the preferred contractor for Defra for some time and I think the worry is that there could be a gap."

Professor Stuart Palmer's meeting with Benn is expected to cover plans for the new academic department of life sciences, which will have around 55 "principal investigators", down from around 90.

A source, who did not wish to be named, explained: "It seems this is a sign that Defra, at the highest level, is now taking an interest in Warwick HRI."

Defra transitional funding for the Wellesbourne site runs out in 2012. NFU chief horticultural adviser Phil Hudson said: "It is understandable Hilary Benn would want to discuss the implications of the plans at Warwick on R&D given that Defra has put a considerable amount of money into Wellesbourne."

But another industry figure told HW that without providing funding, Defra could not pull any strings. "Hilary Benn cannot force people to do things that are not financially sound," he said.

The focus on horticultural R&D is set to sharpen within Parliament as key figures prepare to examine Defra's approach to funding research institutes. As an inquiry from the influential Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) looms, an EFRA evidence session will examine Defra's Evidence Investment Strategy 2010-2013. Government's chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington and Defra's chief scientific adviser Professor Robert Watson will attend the meeting on 17 March.

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