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Union warns of closure to nations front line of defence

Government cuts are likely to affect the UK’s ability to deal with major crises, according to a union representing 3,400 scientists.

Prospect, who represent scientists in the Department of the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), yesterday released a report entitled “Who’s looking after Defra science?” following a series of warnings last year from Defra’s scientific consultants, and the government’s own chief science adviser.

The agencies facing privatisation, closure, merger, relocation, or other change in status are: the Central Science Laboratory (CSL), Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD), and Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

Described by Paul Noon, Prospect General Secretary, as “the nation’s front line of defence against animal diseases being imported into the human food chain;” these bodies carry out research into major threats to public and animal health, such as avian flu, BSE, foot and mouth disease and anthrax, as well as monitoring food safety, and agriculture’s impact on the environment.

Arguing against the move to privatisation, Mr Noon continued; “Science is not just an economic commodity, it is first and foremost a public good. [Privatisation] is creating huge uncertainty and driving good people out of science. That is a loss to the UK as a whole.”

Investigations by Prospect show that fewer than one in four scientists find alternative employment in scientific research once public research facilities close. “This represents a major waste of investment in highly qualified and skilled staff,” said Mr Noon.

Early this summer, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, echoed his concern, saying: “The upshot of [privatisation] is the number of scientifically trained people who are able to come into the upper echelons of the civil service is diminishing, and that is a real problem.”

Operating under existing cuts, members of Defra’s Science Advisory Council expressed concern in May this year that the department was no longer capable of conducting the science programmes necessary for advising ministers and underpinning the government’s policy goals.

In order to provide the science to underpin its policy work, Defra’s chief scientific adviser estimated the need for a £20-30m increase in Defra’s research budget.

Leona Baldwin.

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