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No time for cuts

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IN A SPEECH to the Trades Union Congress (tuc) annual conference in Brighton this week, Mr David Miliband, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made an impassioned plea for the environment and, in particular, for tackling climate change. This topic has been top of defra's agenda for some time but, in his speech, Mr Miliband pushed it even further to the fore. Addressing and tackling climate change was, he said, ‘the greatest man-made challenge we face’, and he called on the trade unions to help to make sure that everyone played their part in dealing with it. ‘One hundred years ago the crisis in our economic system was social. Today it is environmental. Just as people were exploited 100 years ago, with disastrous consequences, so natural resources are being exploited today, again with disastrous consequences. And just as our social contract has developed over the last 100 years to give rights to working people and responsibilities to powerful interests, so today we need an environmental contract based on rights and responsibilities too.’

Few would deny that tackling climate change is vital. Also, speeches must be tailored to their audience and it can be difficult to make more than one point effectively in a short address. Nevertheless, it is a little worrying that the minister should have made no mention of other aspects of defra's remit in his address to the conference. Formed out of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions during the height of the foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) crisis in 2001, defra describes itself as ‘the department that deals with essentials of life’. A sustainable environment is undoubtedly one of life's essentials; however, ensuring that ‘animal health and the welfare of kept animals [are] improved, and that society, the economy and the environment [are] protected from the impact of animal diseases’ is also listed among its priorities.

Dealing with animal health and environmental challenges requires a strong science base. It is disturbing, therefore, that, a week before the tuc conference, the trade union Prospect, which represents scientists and specialists working in the public sector, should have published a report suggesting that defra's research in these areas is currently under threat. The report, ‘Who's looking after defra science?’,* discusses work undertaken by five defra agencies — the Central Science Laboratory, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. It points out that the work undertaken by these agencies is vital to animal health, public health and the environment, but claims that ‘a barrage of cuts’, together with organisational reviews and changing priorities, is putting research and expertise at risk. It says that the Treasury has ordered defra to cut £200m to £300m from this year's budget over the next six months, and fears that this could ‘cut deeply into flood defence work, nature conservation, and support for scientific research groups’.

According to Mr Paul Noon, Prospect's general secretary, ‘These bodies are the nation's front line of defence against animal diseases being imported into the human food chain. But they do much more than that. They carry out worthwhile science to the benefit of everyone in the uk and the environment in which they live and work. Science is not just an economic commodity; it is first and foremost a public good. The Government's obsession with privatisation and reviews is creating huge uncertainty and driving good people out of science. That is a loss to the UK as a whole, as well as to the science base that the Government claims to support.’

Responding to the report in general terms, defra said that its budget review was only looking at current expenditure and that all planned capital investment in its science facilities remained unaffected. Meanwhile, its Laboratory Strategy Programme was examining how to make the optimum use of defra's laboratory facilities. It pointed out that defra spent around £150m each year on research and development (r&d) and that scope for savings in the current year was limited because funds were already committed to projects. It would be looking to reprioritise future programmes to ensure that key areas of research and research capability within the uk were maintained. It added, ‘We will be doing all we can to mitigate the impact of cuts to the r&d programme in future years through rigorous reprioritisation of programmes to ensure that key areas of research and research capability within the uk are maintained.’

None of that is particularly reassuring, and makes it all the more important that, in setting priorities, defra takes full account of its broad remit, does not neglect important areas and gets its priorities right. Safeguarding animal health has to be high on the list, as anyone who remembers fmd, or is keen to prevent future disease outbreaks, will realise. One would presume that that might also include the Treasury.

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