By Devinder Sharma
Cross posted from Ground Reality, Understanding the politics of food, agriculture and hunger
The erstwhile Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge (UK)
Margaret Thatcher, 87, died yesterday. She is being hailed as the Iron Lady who transformed Britain. Every newspaper across the globe has paid rich tributes to her. Some have even carried her obituary on the front page, which is quite a rare honour.
I only know that she had a steely resolve. Whatever she thought of doing, she did it. That’s what I have read over the years. And knowing the determination with which she destroyed public sector science, I can understand why and how she earned the title Iron Lady. Nevertheless, let me share this story of how Britain’s only woman Prime Minister, the unyielding Margaret Thatcher, eclipsed one of the world’s best known research centre in plant sciences, which was emerging as a global leader in plant molecular biology and genomics.
I am talking of thefamed Plant BreedingInstitute (PBI) at Cambridge.
For any plant scientist, Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge was a Mecca. As a student of plant breeding I too nourished the desire to make it one day to PBI. But by the time I reached the age to visit PBI as a researcher it had already been sold-off to Unilever. Later, in 1998, Unilever sold it to Monsanto. I remember the controversy over the priceless plant germplasm collections that PBI had at the time it was sold to Unilever. After a lot of public pressure, the plant collections were shifted to another public sector research institute, John Innes Research Centre in Norwich.
The sale of PBI to Unilever was a great loss to independent science, and of course a loss to humanity.
It was in 1996 that I went to Cambridge as a Press Fellow. One fine day I called up Sir Ralph Riley, a very distinguished plant geneticist, who also happened to be the founder director of PBI. He came to see me at the Wolfson College, and very politely offered to give me a detour of Cambridge to show me around some of the better known places for plant genetic research. This was indeed a treat.
After showing me the pub where Watson and Crick had dashed to after discovering the DNA structure, he drove me around to what used to be the PBI. Parked his car somewhere, got out and pointing to the research farm, he said: “This is where plant breeding died.”
I can never forget those words.
I asked him whether PBI was incurring losses because that’s the only economic reason why a research institute would be sold-off. “On the contrary, he said, when PBI was sold by Margaret Thatcher to MNC Unilever, it was bringing in a revenue of (British) Pound 10 million a year against an expenditure of Pound 4 million/year.” I don’t know how you would take it, but how can any sane person justify selling-off a profit earning research centre? But then, that was Iron Lady. She earned the title because of her dictatorial role in pushing privatisation.
Not being able to recall certain other notable things that he had shared, I did a quick search today. In one of the Royal Society publications, I find this paragraph: “When Riley became Secretary of the Agricultural and Food Research Council (ARC) in 1978, Shirley Williams, as Secretary of Statefor Education and Science, had increased the science vote spending and this no doubt encouraged Riley to take the position. However, after the election of the Conservative governmentled by Margaret (later Baroness) Thatcher (FRS 1983) in 1979, cuts were imposed immediately and further reductions occurred in the years that followed. Throughout his six and a halfyears in office there were continual major reductions of budget in real terms. This made thejob of Secretary difficult, stressful and not a particularly happy one. Whole institutions had tobe closed (the Letcome Laboratory and the Weed Research Organisation) and reductions inothers led to fewer research sites being sustained.
So the first step before you privatise is to cut the life line. In this case, budget cuts and staff reduction programmes was actually aimed at stifling public sector research and thereby justify the need to bring inn private funding. This is exactly what happens in other parts of the world, including India.
“Reductions in staff numbers were necessary across the service, some by compulsory redundancy and closure of programmes. All this made the planned expansion in molecular and cellbiology, the new science, more difficult and controversial.“
Subsequently, Sir Ralph Riley wrote: “Unfortunately after I had ceased to have any involvement with the AFRC the government privatised that partof the PBI activity concerned with variety production even though it was generating a return to theGovernment of about £10 million per year from a total cost in the Institute of about 4 million pounds per year.Thus the work that we had done to bring fundamental and closely applied work together, to permit easy crossfeeding was destroyed. Nevertheless, it may be that it (the former PBI) provides a model that will subsequentlybe followed by others.” (See page 395-396 of this Royal Society publication:http://rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/49/385.full.pdf).