Executive pulls plug on basic research
by Martyn Bull
Times Higher Education, 10 June 2005
Basic science at Scotland’s stand- alone agriculture and biological research institutes was under fire this week after ministers confirmed that core funding would be withdrawn from the Hannah Research Institute in April 2006.
Nearly 70 scientific and specialist support staff will be affected by the closure of the Hannah institute, in Ayrshire, which was once well respected for its dairy food research and, more recently, its cell biology programmes.
This week, Bob Irvine, head of the Science and Research Group at the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (Seerad), which funds Scotland’s eight agriculture and biotechnology institutes, warned that more jobs could be lost at other institutes.
Mr Irvine said: “We want to give the institutes more freedom to look for their own funding and set their own research strategies.
“Science in institute settings should be practically orientated. We were told by the institutes that they would be able to modify their programmes, so this could possibly lead to losses of research scientists from Scotland as basic research programmes no longer meet the priorities of Seerad.”
But scientists at the Hannah institute say they were misled into thinking that shifting to more basic research over the past few years would better fit with Seerad research requirements and so secure their funding.
Mr Irvine said: “The problems at the Hannah lie solely on their doorstep.
The institutes are independently governed so there is little we can do to influence that.”
Cathy Jamieson MSP, in whose Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley constituency the institute lies, met with Lewis MacDonald, Deputy Minister for the Environment and Rural Affairs, last Thursday.
Afterwards she said: “The minister has agreed to look at how staff can be given more time to submit possible projects that could be funded from the transitional funding made available by the Executive, and he has agreed to follow up a number of issues with Glasgow University.”
Other measures agreed include establishing a specialised “job shop” to identify new employment and retraining opportunities for staff, and the appointment of a project manager to oversee the transition.
But Iain Gow, principal scientist at the institute, estimates that discussions with Glasgow University will secure positions for only about five scientists.
Dr Gow said: “It is hard to reconcile the Scottish Executive’s Fresh Talent Initiative – designed to attract and retain scientific expertise and experience in the country – with the fact that the Executive does not seem of a mind to use the experience and expertise represented by the staff of the Hannah Research Institute.”
Scotland has eight agriculture and biotechnology institutes. These include the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, near Aberdeen, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie.
They employ about 2,400 scientists and support staff and receive about Pounds 44.5 million grant-in-aid from the Seerad science and research group and carry out 85 per cent of its research.
Hannah staff claim that years of poor management at the institute have not helped the situation. A Seerad visiting group report in 2002-03 said that the science at the institute was fine but highlighted weaknesses in management.
Chris Finnerty, lead negotiator for science union Prospect, said: “It is galling that senior management are nowhere to be seen in this process.
“But we believe we have obtained the best achievable outcome for our members given the determination of the minister to cease funding Hannah research in its present form.”
The institute has been given the chance to bid for £2.46 million in transitional funding for three years from April 2006. This includes money for redundancies and pensions.