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Living with uncertainty

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The Government seems to be going great guns in dismantling various structures put in place by the previous administration but has so far given little clear indication of what might replace them, causing a fair amount of uncertainty in the process.

In the field of animal health, one of the first changes to have been announced is the merger of Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) (VR, July 3, 2010, vol 167, p 1). Announcing the merger on June 29, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State at Defra, indicated that it was an early result of an ongoing review of Defra's current network of more than 80 ‘arm's-length’ bodies, and that more announcements would follow. In conducting the review, she would be applying three Government tests to each of these bodies: does it perform a technical function?; does it need to be politically impartial?; and does it act independently to establish facts?. She said that the Government believed that policy advice should be carried by government departments, not arm's length bodies. Following the principle that ‘Government should do only those things which only Government can do’, she would be examining ‘how parts of the Defra networks assets could be marketed or be run better through the voluntary sector, while protecting key Defra outcomes’.

On the face of it, a merger between Animal Health and the VLA makes sense. However, much will depend on how things work out in practice. In particular, questions arise about how it will affect, and be affected by, government plans to share the responsibilities and costs of safeguarding animal health with the farming industry (which have themselves still to be clarified), and there is talk of some of Defra's animal health budgets being devolved. As with most of the changes being made in these hard financial times, there must also be concern that it could be used as an excuse for cost cutting and that important activities could cease.

Similar uncertainty clouds the future of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) following media reports earlier this week that the agency could be axed. The Department of Health has said that all arm's-length bodies remain under review and no decision has been taken, but doubts must remain nonetheless. If the Government does decide to restructure the FSA it would do well to apply its three tests carefully and make sure that it gets it right. Whatever happens, the regulatory function of the agency must continue in some shape or form, as, indeed must the transparency of its operations and the independence of its advice. Since it was established in 2000 the FSA has done much to improve the way food safety issues are dealt with. The last thing anyone needs is a return to the situation in the 1990s, when every government announcement on the subject was greeted with scepticism and national food scares seemed a normal part of everyday life.

The situation regarding the future of higher education and science is hardly any clearer. The minister for universities and science, David Willetts, outlined his thinking on challenges facing the higher education sector in a speech at Oxford Brookes University last month and, more recently, in a speech at the Royal Institution last week, outlined his vision for science. However, quite how higher education develops will to a large extent depend on the outcome of Lord Browne's review of university funding, which will not be known until the autumn, and, in his speech on science policy last week, Mr Willetts made clear that there were aspects of this that could only really be taken forward when the Government's comprehensive spending review has been concluded. The results of the spending review will not be known until the autumn but, given the noises emanating from almost every branch of government at present, even the blindest optimist would be hard-pushed to suggest that the funding situation will improve.

One change announced by Mr Willetts last week is that introduction of the Research Excellence Framework (intended to replace the Research Assessment Exercise) is to be delayed by a year, with a view to investigating whether there is a better way of assessing the impact of research. The delay is likely to be welcomed by the academic community, not least because the outcome of the assessments has profound implications for funding, but it does raise the question of what kind of system will emerge.

The trouble with uncertainty is that it makes it difficult to plan ahead. For those working at ‘the coal face’, it can also be demoralising because, despite the various structures imposed by different governments over the years, they might actually be doing a good job. In the meantime, change in itself is disruptive and it is rarely a good idea to try and change too many things at once. Any new government will want to make changes soon after an election, particularly when times are hard. However, on a practical level, a degree of continuity is needed, and care should be taken to ensure that the good doesn't get jettisoned along with the bad.

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