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Hackles rise over privatization plan

UK Natural Environment Research Council proposes to cut four institutes loose, but scientists fear for long-term data.

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The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is in a quandary. The government body, which channels money to environmental scientists, has for weeks been soliciting evidence on whether it should hand funding control of four of its five key research institutes to the private sector. The move is meant in part to decrease the institutes’ reliance on waning government funds, but leading scientists have now gone public with their concerns that it could jeopardize research and data of crucial importance to environmental science in the United Kingdom and around the world.

At stake are the futures of the National Oceanography Centre, the British Geological Survey, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science. (The British Antarctic Survey, which NERC also runs, is not affected.) As well as conducting research on a variety of environ­mental topics, all four are closely linked to specialist centres that collect long-term data, such as the British Oceanographic Data Centre, hosted by the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool. In total, the institutes have a budget of about £400 million (US$628 million).

“The NERC centres uniquely provide long-term consistent data, and make them freely available for the benefit of ecological science and to improve our understanding of the natural world,” says William Sutherland, president of the British Ecological Society in London. “These data include studies that are undertaken over the course of decades, protected from changes in fashion or the fluctuations of short-term demands. Any change in ownership of the centres must preserve this.”

“We need safeguards for these unique assets and long-term, large-scale perspectives.”

Helen Snaith, a remote-sensing researcher at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and a trade-union representative, notes that advice that the centres provide to the government could be compromised if they start generating significant income from private sources. “There’s the potential for a very clear perceived conflict of interest,” she says. She also worries that the roughly 1,750 members of staff at the four centres, about two-thirds of whom are researchers, could get a worse deal on pay and benefits under private ownership.

Duncan Wingham, NERC’s chief executive, stresses that no decision has yet been taken. If the centres are moved out of the public sector, he says, it would not necessarily mean that they become profit-making. They could, for example, become part of universities. He has also emphasized that the decision on the centres’ futures will not consider cost savings, which most interested parties concede.

There may also be advantages, adds Wingham — notably that freeing the institutes of public-sector constraints on pay and promotion, and from reliance on government funding, could give them better flexibility to respond to new opportunities.

Steve Ormerod, an ecologist at Cardiff University and chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, acknowledges this. He sees advantages if the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology can develop partnerships on its own terms with international agencies and businesses, and says that being independent might allow the centre to win more funding and attract more researchers.

But there are risks, he says. “We need safeguards for these unique assets, skills and long-term, large-scale perspectives that have always provided crucial support for impartial, highly rigorous, evidence-based advice.”

NERC’s call for evidence on the proposal closed at the end of August, and submissions are being reviewed. The NERC board will decide on the institutes’ futures in December. If the research council does choose to divest itself of these centres, the decision would represent almost the end of an era for government-controlled science in the United Kingdom. According to its 2011–12 report, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has made arrangements to “remove [its] ability to exert control” over some of its institutes; and the Medical Research Council is transferring some of its in-house units to universities.

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