Pressure mounts on Defra's Hilary Benn over Warwick HRI

Pressure is mounting on Defra secretary Hilary Benn to review the impact of changes at the Wellesbourne site on the UK's ability to meet the Government's food strategy.

A call has gone out from researchers at the University of Warwick to halt the redundancy process taking place as part of the planned merger of Warwick HRI with its department of biological sciences to create a new school of life sciences.

In addition, former Defra food and farming minister Jane Kennedy has this week tabled an early day motion on the threat to horticultural research at Warwick HRI.

She is also writing directly to Benn and University of Warwick vice-chancellor Nigel Thrift in her role as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture.

Kennedy told HW that the possible threat to Warwick HRI pointed to a lack of recognition of the "importance of applied research". She added: "I would hope Hilary Benn would join with other ministers to ask the University of Warwick to reconsider. It is the university's decision, but I hope ministers will express the same dismay I felt."

The university is consulting on plans for the future of Wellesbourne, which has Defra transitional funding until 2012, and a possible industry-led research unit.

Professor Stuart Palmer, interim head of the university's new school of life sciences, was due to meet Benn this month but the meeting is now expected to take place at the beginning of May after being rescheduled twice.

A Defra spokesman told HW: "The [original January] meeting was offered by Warwick after Hilary Benn wrote to Professor Thrift in December seeking more information on reports that changes to the facility were moving ahead rapidly, and Mr Benn looks forward to meeting Professor Palmer."

Meanwhile, the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee staged a one-off evidence session examining Defra science on 17 March. Defra chief scientific adviser Professor Bob Watson was questioned on funding for applied research and development by horticulture sector representatives including East Malling Research head of science Chris Atkinson, John Innes Centre head of business development Jonathan Clarke and HW.

A letter signed by more than 40 academic staff members was submitted to the committee highlighting 25 years of erosion of the UK applied research base for horticulture and calling for supporters to write to Benn to protest against further degradation.

A source, who did not wish to be named, told HW that staff were "extremely agitated". They added: "The big problem is that no-one realises horticulture is a fragmented industry. Everyone recognises the need to invest but nothing is translating into action to preserve the UK's number one horticulture and agriculture research organisation."

University of Warwick head of communications Peter Dunn said it was a "matter of weeks" until redundancies were made clear. "We have been in the process for considerable months now and people wouldn't be human if they weren't concerned," he admitted.

"We are in this process because Warwick HRI, as it currently stands, is not financially sustainable. Whatever comes out of this process must be sustainable."

Tory Pledge

Shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs Nick Herbert reaffirmed previous committments that a Conservative government would prioritise R&D at an event to open a postgraduate centre at Harper Adams University College.

He said: "Science is going to be immensely important to the challenge of increasing food production sustainably."

Also speaking during the launch of the new centre earlier this month was Lord John Taylor, who has played a key role in raising the issue of the decline of applied horticultural R&D within Parliament. He explained that there was a need to "reinvigorate" applied research.

"There is concern that applied subjects such as agronomy, plant breeding, soil science, entomology, crop and livestock physiology, pathology and weed science have gone through a period of significant attrition and remain vulnerable," he warned.

"We must work to ensure effective representation from the food industries on the panels and committees where decisions are taken on funding and strategy for public sector research." Taylor added scientists must improve the image of applied research.

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