Programmes at institutes allied to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will be shelved and projects up for renewal will be cut by up to 25 per cent under Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food plans that emerge this week.
Scientists affected by the cuts, which could eventually total millions of pounds, believe they are being imposed to meet the spiralling costs to the Government of dealing with BSE. They fear that the cuts will damage the long-term safety and efficiency of the United Kingdom's agriculture industry.
At the Institute of Arable Crops Research there is to be a complete withdrawal of funding for research on bacterial diseases. Research in areas such as crop protection and the impact of climate change on crop production is also under threat.
The IACR's assistant director Stephen James urged MAFF "to live up to its strategic research responsibilities. Meeting them is essential for the safety of our future food supply. It is crucial that scientific capability is maintained in these areas to meet new and unexpected developments."
Significant cuts are also expected at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, which develops safe, natural and efficient grassland-based food production systems, in programmes dealing with the breeding of forage grasses, legumes and oats. Work dealing with ruminant nutrition is also under threat.
A senior IGER source says: "MAFF are in the unenviable position of funding research against a massive decline in civil research expenditure. We appreciate that there are increasingly stringent financial constraints but the Government should realise that there is no luxury research being carried out at the institutes."
Silsoe Institute expects big cuts in "precision agriculture", which aims to optimise the yield of fields, and animal excrement and urine handling and treatment systems. The development of automated systems for the agricultural industry, particularly horticulture, is also threatened. According to a senior Silsoe source, countries such as Japan and the Netherlands are spending more on such systems because of their potential for reducing costs and improving the quality of produce.
"We are not opposed to the closure of scientific programmes when they have reached a natural conclusion but we should be able to expect that funds released are reinvested in other areas to help improve the competitiveness of UK agriculture. The science budget may have remained relatively stable in recent years but what is rarely publicised is the decline in research spending by departments such as MAFF and the Department of Environment."