Key scientific research sites to close

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Four key scientific research sites are to close - but important activities that it was feared would be at risk will be strengthened, it was announced today.

The Council of the Natural Environment Research Council confirmed plans for a major shake up at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology - closing research sites at Banchory in Scotland, Dorset, Monks Wood Cambridgeshire and Oxford.

The Director's Office will relocate from Swindon to Wallingford in Oxfordshire, which will become the new headquarters.

Key science currently carried out at sites that are to close, will be continued at retained sites.

The Council of the Natural Environment Research Council met last week and agreed that the original drivers for the restructuring, funding only the highest quality science, the reducing trend in external income and ensuring long term financial sustainability, remain.

However after looking at the issues raised during consultation with staff, stakeholders and the public, the Council said it had decided to make some amendments to the original proposal.

The consultation raised fears that some strengths of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology might be jeopardised, such as in biodiversity, datasets and long term monitoring.

To reduce any risk and ensure that critical work is not only maintained but also enhanced, the Council revised its funding allocation, adding £1.3 million to the original £15 million per year.

It has also agreed a revision of the original target for commissioned research, regarded by the consultations as too prudent, from £11 million to £12.4 million per year.

As a result, up to 40 of the 200 posts at risk in the business plan will be saved.

And despite worries that important activities would be at risk the Natural Environment Research Council said these would in fact be strengthened.

Examples include the Countryside Survey, long term monitoring, research in freshwater ecology to help implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive and predicting the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology holds and develops key sets of data, such as those within the Biological Records Centre, which will be moved to Wallingford.

None of these key data sets will be lost and extra resources will ensure good management and availability of information.

The Natural Environment Research Council also confirmed that it would go ahead with a partnership funding initiative of £2 million per year, available for bids in key areas of ecology and hydrology from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and partners, such as universities, in order to develop high quality collaborative research.

The Centre will remain a science driven, not a site based organisation and the high quality science it delivers will continue through these core programmes, biodiversity, water and biogeochemistry with two cross cutting themes of climate change and sustainable economies, all supported by environmental informatics.

The Council said bringing science teams together on four sites will create important synergies across different programmes and disciplines, enable it to build on recent significant improvements in Centre for Ecology and Hydrology facilities and improve resources available to carry out first class science.

By focusing the Centre's activities at four sites, significant savings will be made overall in running and maintenance costs so that more funding will be available for science.

The Council said it believes that the restructuring creates the right size and shape for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The cost of the shake up is estimated to be about £43 million, and will take four years, lowering the Centre's operating costs by over £7 million per year.

Allowing for the impact of a lower target for external income, this leaves about £5 million per year to invest in high quality science across the Natural Environment Research Council's priority areas.

Current priorities include environment, and human health, the role of aerosols in climate change, and the possible shutdown of the North Atlantic current, which gives Europe its mild climate.

The Council said it believes that the restructuring will enable the Centre to sustain and improve on its position as a leading centre in environmental research and monitoring.

But it greatly regrets the impact on staff and will ensure that everything possible is done to help, particularly those adversely affected.