Stakeholders welcome crop research centre plan but have questions over funding

A document assessing the viability of an applied crop research centre to replace the University of Warwick's Wellesbourne research station has been welcomed by stakeholders. Concerns have been raised, however, that funding issues have yet to be addressed.

The document outlines a potential model for the centre that would see up to eight key scientists supported by around 20 staff. According to the proposal: "The centre will be closely linked to the new (life sciences) school, providing the opportunity to translate some of the more fundamental crop-based research into industry and the commercial sector."

The potential areas of expertise proposed in the document include crop improvements and genetics, entomology and integrated pest management, waste management, crop physiology and agronomy, pathology, environmental accounting and plant nutrition. The document was introduced at a stakeholder meeting last week.

National Horticulture Forum chairman Andrew Colquhoon said the university had done a good job of producing proposals. "It's going to take the university and the stakeholders working together to give the centre a strong future. It's an encouraging plan but the elephant in the room is the money."

HTA chairman David Gwyther agreed: "The HTA is very keen to see Warwick continue to provide applied research so the proposal in principle is one we would support, particularly if it would ensure that staff were kept in post and we didn't lose their skills.

"However, there does seem to be an absence of clarity in the financial plans. They are looking for commitments for two to three million pounds of work and it is not at all clear where that might come from."

University of Warwick head of communications Peter Dunn would not give a timeline for possible funding arrangements. He said: "We want to keep things moving forward relatively quickly because we want to retain some of the staff from Warwick HRI.

"The centre has got to be sustainable, it has to be commercially funded and so it has to have support from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council, Defra and the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) and do research that people want it to."

The recruitment process for the eight research posts is already underway. A commercial manager is also being recruited.

HDC chairman Neil Bragg said it was essential to analyse the skills that might be required by the industry and that might be provided by the centre.

"We need to see who is interested in being employed and then we need to have project proposals put to us," he added. "It's chicken and egg - if we haven't got the individuals are we going to get the proposals and vice versa?"

Bragg said he would wait for the university to propose a financial model before initiating further stakeholder discussions.

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