THE HEALTH of Britain's science base is being threatened as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food slashes its funding for research institutes, a leading scientist has warned.
Ray Baker, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, says that MAFF has withdrawn Pounds 3-4 million from BBSRC institutes for next year. These, including the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where Dolly the sheep was cloned, have lost more than Pounds 600,000 at very short notice, as contracts between researchers and MAFF are not renewed. Others, such as the Institute of Food Research, have lost even more, he says.
Professor Baker warns that the cuts could have dire consequences, with the BBSRC, which funds research projects and infrastructure, having to pick up redundancy costs associated with MAFF funding cuts. This may affect the number of grants BBSRC can make to researchers.
MAFF and the BBSRC, which between them fund much of the agricultural and biological research, have a long history of funding tension. Professor Baker says this culminated last year in a major decrease in funding by MAFF to BBSRC institutes.
"A number of contracts have not been renewed as they come to an end," he said. "We hope that MAFF would be able to take a longer view. We think they should take account of the science base as well as commercial work.
"It would be important for MAFF to analyse the strength of the science base to a greater degree," he said. "In the medium term we risk multinationals who rely on the science base leaving Britain."
"We are pressing the institutes to find further income, but there will be a knock-on effect for universities. If I have to pay for redundancies, it will decrease the science base significantly. Pounds 5 million from Pounds 45 million or Pounds 50 million for new grant distribution each year is a 10 per cent hit."
He added: "In biological science there has never been a period of opportunity like this. Our knowledge of genomics and the drive to link this with whole animals and to assign function to genes should be second to none. The opportunities are immense, but you need the science base and the people."
Grahame Bulfield, director of the Roslin Institute, added that MAFF thought it could "turn the funding taps on and off".
He said that the Roslin had coped for the past few years with a 2 to 3 per cent decrease in MAFF funding, but this year's 17 per cent cut was far worse.
"There will be substantial redundancies. In this country, agriculture is funded by three ministries; the Scottish Office; BBSRC, which is part of the OST, and MAFF. They are not working together in an organised way. We need a five-year implementation plan that the different ministries need to buy into," he said.
A spokesman for MAFF said the ministry envisaged a cut of Pounds 2.5-3 million to BBSRC institutes next year. "We are spending more this year on BSE research. That means although existing contracts will be honoured there will have to be a shuffling of funds between BSE and non-BSE work.
"BBSRC tends to focus on high science in agriculture. Increasingly, our priorities suggest we should be moving to a wider range of issues. There is increasing mismatch between what BBSRC offer and what we require."