Leading article: Save our wildlife research laboratories


We detail today just a small part of the work being done by Britain's three leading wildlife research centres, at Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire, Winfrith in Dorset and Banchory near Aberdeen. Our report shows the range, depth and importance of this work to anyone who cares for the natural world and wishes to protect it. This is a vital and truly admirable body of work that is trying to hold the line against the manifold threats to our countryside and its wildlife from intensive farming, from pollution and now, most insidiously, from climate change. And it is to be swept away - if the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has its wish.

Two months ago we highlighted NERC's plans to close down all three research stations, which are part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), and sack 200 of their scientists, as part of a questionable cost-cutting exercise. Today we report on the response of a large part of the life sciences establishment to the proposals. Shorn of the diplomatic language, it is a short and simple message: you must be joking. The NERC consultation exercise on the closure plans has attracted the astonishing total of 1,327 responses from every kind of scientific or environmental research body, association or charity, from the Royal Society down. It is clear from sources within the CEH, and from submissions that have been made public, that the overwhelming verdict is negative: an unprecedented, gigantic thumbs-down.

The objections to the closure plan are made in the sort of detail which was not evident in the plan itself - universities are unlikely to take over long-term research, staff told they will have to move may very well just resign - but the same basic theme runs through them all: you cannot simply sweep away Britain's ecological research base. The notion is outlandish, and that the 18 members of the NERC governing council thought that this could be done, and could simply be put through on their say-so, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole sorry business. As Dr Mark Avery, the conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has said elsewhere: "The NERC council has made a gross error of judgement."

There is a saying sometimes mentioned in scientific circles, which may hint at the unspoken prejudices that have allowed this to happen: "The only true science is physics; the rest is stamp collecting." It is clear that among the NERC council members, where physics and the physical sciences are strongly represented and biodiversity is almost nowhere, wildlife and its protection counts for very little. But in the world outside the closeted NERC council meeting room, protection of the natural world matters hugely, and in Britain especially. Consider: in France, the national bird protection society, the Ligue pour La Protection des Oiseaux, has 38,000 members; in Britain, a country with almost exactly the same size of population, its equivalent, the RSPB, has more than a million.

It is to be devoutly hoped that the NERC council, and the NERC chief executive, Professor Alan Thorpe, will listen to what the respondents to their consultation exercise are saying, when they meet to decide on the closure plan tomorrow. Professor Thorpe is an outstanding atmospheric physicist, who has run the Hadley Centre, Britain's world-beating climate change research institute, and to be fair to him, he did not start the process of taking the axe to Monks Wood and its sister stations; that was done by his predecessor, Sir John Lawton (now chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution). Professor Thorpe is the inheritor of the idea. But it is a lousy idea, and the time has come to bin it.

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