Foot-and-mouth is jeopardising careers in research

March 30, 2001

The foot-and-mouth crisis has decimated academic fieldwork, jeopardising millions of pounds worth of research and blighting the careers of young scientists.

Environmental scientists, ecologists, geologists and archaeologists, among others, have been forced to abandon projects as access to rural areas has been blocked to stop the disease spreading.

John Lawton, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, has asked the Office of Science and Technology for substantial extra funding to meet the cost.

He said: "We're particularly worried about the careers of young researchers and the contractual obligations of the research centres and surveys."

Dr Lawton estimated up to a fifth of Nerc's 1,000 PhD students will be unable to carry out their research, with the cost of extending their funding to mitigate the delays possibly running to Pounds 3 million.

Nerc is collecting data on affected grant-holders but admits its £174 million budget will be insufficient to bear the burden.

PhD research programmes were being refocused and university regulations governing timescales and content relaxed to ensure students could still produce acceptable work, said Alan Davison, professor of environmental biology at Newcastle University.

Professor Davison, who is science coordinator of Nerc's global nitrogen enrichment programme that has seen the work of 25 PhD students effected, said: "It's a traumatic time for postgraduates."

The restrictions were also threatening Nerc's Pounds 6 million soil diversity programme, according to Peter Shaw, senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, and a member of the programme's steering committee. "Since PhDs are only funded for three years, this delay is critical," he said.

Archaeological excavations have been halted and expeditions to disease-free Ireland dropped because of the risk of contamination.

Kenneth Brophy, an archaeology lecturer at Glasgow University, said: "We're looking at a summer sitting behind our desks."

The committee of heads of geoscience departments said the Easter field programme was now lost and the summer field programme likely to follow.

Other research councils expect to be unaffected, though the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will reconsider work plans if necessary.

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