Go back

Defra wants industry partner for environment agency

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is considering a commercial partner for the Food and Environment Research Agency so that Fera can cope with cuts to its budget.

Fera, which is in charge of activities such as developing tests to deal with the ash dieback virus and the horsemeat scandal, is largely funded by Defra, which is facing 10 per cent cuts to its budget in 2015-16. The department has said it is undertaking “a market sounding exercise to explore joint venture as a potential future business model for Fera”.

Bob Watson, former chief scientific adviser to Defra, says the department’s decision “is the only rational and logical way to go forward”. Discussions about Fera’s future have been ongoing for the past two years, he says, adding that the agency is not affordable.

If a partnership cannot be established, he says, the only alternative will be to dismantle the agency and place its essential functions under the control of other government departments. But, he adds, this approach would sacrifice important interactions at the agency.

In a statement announcing the exercise, Defra says it will “retain the necessary level of control to ensure that Fera continues to be able to respond to emergency situations”. The agency’s inspectors of bee health, plant health and seeds, and the government’s decontamination service, which coordinates clean-ups after spills of chemicals or other hazardous materials, will therefore continue to be run by government.

But Kieron Flanagan, a lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, warns that retaining such control will be a challenge if Defra is not the agency’s dominant customer or owner, and that an innovative governance model for the partnership would be required.

Labour MP Andrew Miller, chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, told Research Fortnight that he had spoken to junior Defra minister Rupert Ponsonby and “impressed upon him that whatever the government chooses to do, it needs to ensure that unlike in some other privatisations, British science is protected”.

A decision on Fera’s future is due by the end of the financial year.