Leading article: Save our wildlife research centres

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The Independent Online

Time is running out for four of Britain's globally renowned wildlife research centres. The National Environment Research Council is pushing ahead with plans to close centres in Monk's Wood, Winfrith, Banchory and Oxford. It claims that their closure will allow more resources to be devoted to other wildlife centres around the country. But the truth is that this move is primarily about saving money. The National Environment Research Council has been running a £1m annual budget deficit and has concluded that, to balance the books, wildlife science funding ought to be cut.

But this will not happen without a fight. The announcement has been met with united opposition from Britain's wildlife protection agencies and green campaigners. Our political representatives are also involved. The Tory leader, David Cameron, raised the issue at Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament yesterday. And it has emerged that even the junior environment minister, Jim Knight, is opposed to the closures. An all-party meeting of MPs will discuss the issue next week. If enough political and popular pressure is applied, these centres can still be saved.

The closures make little sense from a scientific perspective. Their loss would gravely damage Britain's ability to preserve its biodiversity. A glance at their record confirms this. The Large Blue butterfly, which became extinct in Britain a quarter of a century ago, was successfully introduced after research by the Winfrith centre. In the 1960s, scientists from Monk's Wood were able to prove that certain pesticides were killing birds of prey by accumulating in the food chain. As a result DDT was banned. Monk's Wood now investigates how mammals, birds, flowers and insects interact with their environment. Its work enables us to study the progress of global warming. As Mr Cameron pointed out in Parliament yesterday, this is an issue that the Government claims to be taking immensely seriously.

These closures also make no sense economically. Although they would save some £5m a year, implementing the plan is likely to cost £45m. And we might consider what other projects the Government has found money for recently. Last month, for instance, it announced a £1m project to come up with an "icon of Englishness".

Any savings that these closures might make cannot come close to justifying the loss of scientific expertise they would entail. The Prime Minister attempted to duck the issue yesterday, saying that the decision lay in the hands of others. But this will not do. The fate of these centres ultimately rests with the Government. And if these research centres are allowed to close, its green credentials will be in tatters.

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