Government plans to privatise two important environmental research centres and the British Geological Survey have alarmed academics, industrialists and unions.
The Government's "prior options" study is looking into the possible privatisation of more than 40 public sector research laboratories. Fears over the future of the survey, the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have surfaced in a consultation carried out by their sponsor, the Natural Environment Research Council.
In its submission to the consultation, the Minerals Committee of the Confederation of British Industry, says the minerals sector relies heavily on the survey to supply it with essential information, including market statistics. It says: "Such information is vital not only to the minerals industry but also to those responsible for regulating the industry." Retaining the industry's confidence and support "depends upon the BGS remaining publicly funded and controlled," says the committee.
The Department of the Environment says that there is no other private sector or university organisation which could take on the function of the survey.
Richard Jones, pro-vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, which has close links with NERC's Plymouth Marine Laboratory, says the council's research facilities have a complementary, but fundamentally different, role from that of higher education institutes.
Without the centres, vital work on long-term data acquisition, instrument development and archiving, which support the whole community's research programme, would not be possible. It is preferable to maintain the centres as part of NERC, says Dr Jones.
Nicholas Owens, head of the department of marine sciences and coastal management at Newcastle University, warns in his submission that it may not be possible to carry out unbiased, objective marine science at the centres if they are encumbered by private sector profit motives.
He says: "Should this happen United Kingdom marine science would rapidly degenerate into a second-class consultancy."