Regional differences put forestry research at risk

17th Jan 2013

A decision by Wales to pull out of the Forestry Commission of Great Britain has left the already struggling field of forestry research facing “damaging uncertainty”, researchers have warned.

Forestry Commission GB is made up of three national organisations in England, Scotland and Wales. However, from 1 April, Wales will break away to set up its own agency, Natural Resources Wales, leaving the future of the larger body uncertain. The move has sparked fears that research funded by Forestry Commission GB could become fragmented as each of the regions goes their own way. All eyes are now on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which must decide whether to continue to run the commission and how to manage its agency Forest Research, which funds work in vital areas such as tree disease and climate change.

Defra is expected to set out its plans in the “near future” as part of its response to a report by the Independent Panel on Forestry that was published in July last year. The report said the picture for research “is evolving” and argued there is a need to “look at what capacity needs to be retained at the GB level”.

Malcolm Currie, Prospect’s union representative for employees at Forestry Commission GB, is worried that England will set up its own national forestry body, effectively abolishing Forestry Commission GB. Concerns have been fuelled by Defra’s decision to axe the director general post at Forestry Commission GB, indicating that it could be closing it down. “You’re going to lose the economies of scale of having one large organisation that interacts seamlessly within itself,” he says. “So there are going to be difficulties there and I suspect additional resources will be needed to make that work.”

Several researchers contacted by Research Fortnight have also expressed fear about fragmenting Forest Research—something Rob Marrs, plant biologist at the University of Liverpool, says would be “dangerous”.

“You could end up with local agendas dictating research activity…answering local problems rather than looking at the big picture,” he says. “Researchers could end up doing trivial science. It could damage the abilities of the UK to compete on an international level.”

Michael Jarvis, a plant biochemist from the University of Glasgow, says the uncertainty alone is “highly damaging” to the field.

Forestry research in the UK suffered cuts during the last spending review in 2010. Forestry Commission GB’s research budget will shrink from about £11 million in 2010-11 to £8.2m in 2014-15. More than 90 per cent of this funding goes to Forest Research, making up around two-thirds of the agency’s total income.

In response, the agency had to make staff cuts of 28 per cent and was forced to end research programmes including those on vertebrate management, wood fuel and biomass, and cultural heritage. It is also making reductions in research fields including tree breeding and social science.

Nevertheless, a Welsh government spokeswoman says that a forestry policy team is to be set up in Wales and that it will engage with Forest Research when commissioning research. Roger Coppock, head of analysis at Forestry Commission GB, confirmed it was working with the Welsh Government, and said it was therefore “unlikely there’ll be any major change in the short term”.

James Pendlebury, the chief executive of Forest Research, is even positive about the changes in Wales. “If anything, I see more opportunities for us. We stand a chance to improve our profile—[Natural Resources Wales] is going to have a more integrated approach.”

However, Currie argues that Wales’ commitment to a body that might be on the verge of extinction is far from reassuring.

“I have constantly asked what will happen to Forestry Commission GB and [Wales has said it will] make a financial contribution, but a financial contribution to what?” he says. “At the moment England seems to be cutting, cutting, cutting, so is that going to be sustainable?”

 

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