A world-class mistake

April 21, 1995

The more effort British universities devote to the problems of the developing world, the better. But is the plan for the Natural Resources Institute, the research arm of the Overseas Development Administration, to be sold to one or more universities the proper approach?

For the ODA to decide it is better off without the NRI, which stands high in any world ranking of development science centres, is itself remarkable, and says little for the importance the Government attaches to science and technology as part of the development process. And the slimming exercise which the NRI is now undergoing to prepare itself for sale, stressing semi-commercial skills over laboratory science, may end up making the NRI harder to integrate into an academic setting.

However, these are only the start of the problems any university buyer of the NRI will find. Many of its scientists are employed as civil servants: is a university likely to issue hundreds of them with tenured contracts? What access will the new NRI have to ODA contracts to replace its present core funding, and will other bidders be able to pitch for them instead? Should the NRI's seven units, working on everything from crop pests to satellite imagery, stay together, to provide synergy and critical mass, or be divided to reinforce existing university departments?

In any case, a university acquiring the NRI will find itself entering the risk business on a new and untried scale. It will need the management skills to run bids to international banks and development agencies, and to maintain the scientific excellence of the NRI as well as its commercial attractiveness.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the proposed sale of the NRI is that the ODA seems not to have thought of the scope for a large, free-standing development science centre in the United Kingdom, which might be formed by making NRI independent, possibly via a management buy-out. Having gone to the trouble of forming the NRI as a world centre of excellence by the sometimes painful amalgamation of the UK's old tropical research centres, why not look for a separate, viable future for it?

But there is one positive aspect for any university that does take on all or part of the NRI. Its hundreds of experienced field scientists are unlikely to fit comfortably into a university management structure. But their decades of work on development projects throughout the developing world ought to make them inspiring lecturers. Perhaps the universities thinking of putting in a bid are simply placing students ahead of considerations of commercial gain.

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