Final harvest at Long Ashton

Why might a research station that has won annual grants of Pounds 5m be closed? Natasha Loder reports

Earlier this summer a quiet catastrophe unfolded in the village of Long Ashton, on the outskirts of Bristol. About 200 scientists discovered they were to lose their jobs at Long Ashton Research Station.

Having lost its core grant of Pounds 3 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, it looks possible that LARS will close during its centenary year in 2003.

The BBSRC described the move as "consolidation", as 40 key staff are to be relocated to the BBSRC's Rothamsted site in Hertfordshire. Rothamstead will also get Pounds 19 million in long-overdue investment in new buildings.

The research council agrees that staff will be "disappointed". In fact many are questioning the basis on which the decision was taken. LARS has been bringing in Pounds 5 million of competitive grants a year, which makes it strange to cut its core funding. Bob Price, director of human and corporate resources at the BBSRC, said the assessment was made on the basis of supporting a long-term scientific programme. "From a BBSRC point of view, the key issue is of focusing research and ensuring infrastructure is the right kind of quality."

The decision to restructure the Institute of Arable Crops Research, of which Long Ashton and Rothamsted are part, follows an internal review by the incoming IACR director. The BBSRC said it had highlighted the value to be gained by integrating research programmes.

Ray Baker, the BBSRC's chief executive, said the investment will "foster exciting new scientific synergies within the IACR". But Ben Miflin, a former director of Rothamsted, was less optimistic about the benefits of moving staff. He warned that research teams will be split, and some staff are likely to take up offers from universities around the country. Some of the best teams could even move abroad.

Such a view is echoed by recent international contributions to a website seeking support for the station. One scientist from Canada said: "It would be very difficult and will take many years to rebuild the kind of strength and synergy that permeates this group at a restructured facility at Rothamsted."

Efforts are being made to save Long Ashton in some form, but Peter Shewry, director of LARS, appears resigned to closure: "I don't think they are going to change their minds." Shewry was brought in from Rothamsted when LARS was at a low ebb, and he transformed its prospects. "I've spent ten years here, I'm obviously disappointed," he said. Discussions about the future are continuing with the University of Bristol and others.

All concerned point out that the decision to close was no reflection on the quality of the science at Long Ashton. But implications about quality have been painful. Miflin is critical of the slur on LARS's science and of the way the news was leaked. "It was bad management. It was unfortunate that it had the implication that the science was inferior; this was totally unjustified." Miflin points out that the last visiting group judged the institute as a whole, so it would not be possible to single out Long Ashton's science as good or bad. "Person for person, it is probably the most competitive site in winning BBSRC grants for the past five years."

Indeed, there was an opportunity to move people ten years ago when the institute was at an all-time low, but instead the decision was taken to build up science at Long Ashton. "They've been extremely successful, the institute is competitive, what is to be gained at this point in time?" Miflin said. Price said that a key factor was that the BBSRC was being presented with proposals for significant capital investment, combined with the need for a coherent integrated strategy in crops research.

The aim is to transfer as much of the science as possible in three to four years - the time-frame for the construction of the new building at Rothamsted, where most of the transferred staff will move. "For some younger staff this is a great opportunity," Shewry said. Relocation costs will reach Pounds 1 million plus redundancy costs over the next three years.

THEY INVENTED RIBENA

Long Ashton Research Station is the UK's second oldest agricultural institute. It was established in 1903 as the National Fruit and Cider Institute -

set up by farmers and growers to improve the quality

of cider produced

in the Southwest.

As a condition of more government assistance in this research, the station become more closely associated with the nearby University of Bristol.

In 1912, LARS became the university's department of agriculture and horticulture. Its land was given to the university, and its interests widened to include other aspects of horticulture, food science, crop nutrition and physiology and crop protection.

A spin-off of its work in the 1930s into syrups and juices led to the commercial production of blackcurrant juice. This became an important source of vitamin C during the second world war and later won internationally renown as the soft drink Ribena.

In the 1980s, LARS's interests changed dramatically. Today there are three research departments: cell biology, crop and environmental sciences, and plant sciences. Since 1987, LARS has been part of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, with sister stations Rothamsted and Broom's Barn Experimental Station. The institute undertakes research related to optimising crop production systems and their interactions with the environment.

Today, LARS is still the University of Bristol's agricultural department. Staff are employed by the university under terms and conditions determined by the BBSRC, which supplies 30-40 per cent of LARS's funding.

LARS is internationally recognised for its work on crop protection, plant development, seed biology, plant genomics, biodiversity and agro-ecology.

Research topics range from molecular tools to pinpoint the function of key genes in plants, plant signalling, stress tolerance in rice and DNA-based diagnostics in plant disease control to growing willow for renewable energy, the biological control of slugs, and genetically modified crops.

The station has been successful in attracting funds from a variety of sources, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department for International Development, the European Commission, industry and international organisations.

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