UK to axe 160 environment jobs

Plan to restructure Centre for Ecology and Hydrology will see four research sites shut

By | March 13, 2006

About 100 environmental research scientists and sixty support staff will lose their jobs at the UK's well-regarded Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) over the next two years as a result of a controversial restructuring plan that was confirmed on Monday (March 13). Mark Avery, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said that the restructuring was "a devastating blow" to the science of biodiversity in Britain. "UK wildlife is now much more threatened as a result of these announced cuts," he told The Scientist. Scientists at the CEH currently research subjects such as biodiversity and climate change at eight research stations dotted across the UK. But in December last year, the center's parent body, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), announced its intention to close four of those sites and reduce overall staff levels from 600 to about 400. The plan triggered widespread concern among scientists and environment groups who made their views clear during a consultation process. The Royal Society, for example, worried the plan would weaken the science that underpins environmental policy. The Government's wildlife conservation agency, English Nature, said it also had major concerns over proposed cuts. "We are concerned that even if biodiversity research programmes, and work on long term research and data, are retained, closure of centres and relocation of staff may mean that key staff with skills and knowledge essential to such work may be lost,? English Nature said in a statement. Despite the opposition, NERC's governing council voted on Wednesday to go ahead with the restructuring, but to make some modifications to initial plans. Those changes mean that four of the center's eight research sites would still close, but that the number of jobs cut would be slimmed from 200 to 160. In a statement on Monday, NERC also acknowledged concerns voiced by the scientific community that the move could jeopardize some of CEH's strengths, such as biodiversity and long-term monitoring. In response, the council has added £1.3 million to the original £15 million allocated for the center each year. The council members also agreed to revise the original target for commissioned research, regarded by the consultations as too prudent, from £11 million to £12.4 million per year. This saved up to 40 of the 200 posts at risk in the business plan. But research and environment groups in the UK have not been mollified by the revised plan. Richard Jefferson, an ecologist at English Nature, said that the cuts would still harm the science being done at CEH. "I don't really think that our concerns have been met. It's hard to see how they're going to continue to do the range of work with this level of cuts," he told The Scientist. "Who else is there to do this work?" "These [threatened] research stations have been vital in establishing the scientific basis for biodiversity conservation in this country," echoed Avery. Alan Thorpe, chief executive of NERC, told The Scientist there were three main drivers behind the need to restructure the center -- a requirement to focus on the highest quality science, a decline in outside funding for the center, and a desire to shore-up the long term sustainability of the center. "We have to make some tough choices in what we fund," he said. "But we think this is the right size and shape for CEH." Thorpe said the restructuring would offer advantages by bringing together teams from different sites, and added that all the datasets being built by CEH would be maintained. The job cuts would include roughly 100 scientists out of a current total of 400, Thorpe said. The remainder of the losses would be among administrative and support staff. Stephen Pincock Links within this article Centre for Ecology and Hydrology NERC Council Statement of Intent -- Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Natural Environment Research Council: council response to consultation English Nature "New Chief Executive for the Natural Environment Research Council," NERC, January 10, 2005.

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