Britain’s leading agricultural research facility is facing a funding crisis

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<p><figcaption class=The institution is making a loss and no longer receives EU development funding.Photo: Tim Scrivener/Alamy

Britain’s main agricultural research center is facing a funding crisis, putting its future work at risk, it can be revealed.

Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, is one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world, founded in 1843, and its research is credited with preventing crop failures around the world.

A letter from Rothamsted director Prof Angela Karp, seen by the Guardian, has warned staff they will have to pause “non-essential” work, announcing a hiring pause and warning of pay freezes.

Concerned scientists have said they fear for their work, which depends on funding. Approximately 350 scientists and 60 PhD students work at the facility. The research includes research into how farmers can be productive while growing trees in their fields, finding out how much carbon crops can store, and two national networks for monitoring insect populations in Britain.

Rothamsted made headlines in 2012 when around 200 anti-genetic modification protesters occupied the site to campaign against their research into a wheat crop said to deter aphids.

Rothamsted receives the majority of its core grant funding directly from the UK Department of Research and Innovation (UKRI), in five-year cycles. For the past two cycles, the institute’s funding did not include inflation costs. The institute has been operating at a loss for years, with the government occasionally intervening to supplement the resources.

While Britain was part of the EU, Rothamsted also benefited from funding from the European Regional Development Fund, which the country is no longer entitled to.

The situation is now believed to be at a crisis point and future operations of the facility are uncertain.

Karp wrote: “I feel it is important for me to inform the staff that, after a promising start, our financial position unfortunately weakened at the end of last year. Despite our continued efforts, including outstanding successes from many employees that we can be proud of, our grant targets for the entire year were not what we had budgeted.

“Although free reserves have been maintained, they still remain lower than we would like and very sensitive to external factors. We are currently considering how best to manage our business model to put our longer-term future on a more secure footing.

“To some extent, we have addressed the challenges we faced in 2023 by rebalancing the funds within the IAE envelope. However, the mitigation measures we have put in place cannot be relied upon from now on and we do not have sufficient reserves to access immediately.”

Rothamsted has estimated its value to the British economy at £3 billion a year, as its work boosts crop yields, both by identifying which crops grow most efficiently and by developing plants that are tolerant to disease and extreme weather conditions.

Much of the government’s offer to farmers post-Brexit, as they struggle with a lack of labor and new environmental regulations on government payments, is new research.

This would allow farmers to work more efficiently, with fewer inputs such as fertilizer, and also require fewer workers as innovations such as robotic vegetable pickers are developed.

A spokesperson for UKRI said: “Although the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) is a core funder of Rothamsted Research, it recognizes and maintains the legal and managerial distinctiveness of the institute. We encourage our strategically supported institutions to seek research funding from a wide range of funders to support research beyond the activities we fund through a range of programs.”

The best Rothamsted experiments

The Park Grass Experiment

The Park Grass experiment is one of modern science’s longest running experiments; it started in 1856 and has continued ever since. What shows most vividly is how biodiversity plummets when you add fertilizer to hayfields.

The research is being carried out at Rothamsted Park in Harpenden on a 2.8 hectare park that has been in permanent pasture for at least 100 years. The goal was originally to find out how to improve hay yield by adding inorganic fertilizer or organic fertilizer.

Within a few years, however, scientists noticed a dramatic decline in the diversity of wild species as the fertilizers changed soil pH and nutrient composition. In the unfertilized areas, scientists noted 35-45 species, but in the areas treated with fertilizer there were only two or three. Once established to promote crop yields, park grass is now a key source of evidence for ecologists and soil scientists.

Artificial fertilizers

Sir John Bennet Lawes, 1st Baronet, inherited the Rothamsted estate from his father. He founded the research center, which first started with his own experiments on the effects of manure on potted plants and field crops in the field. He then patented the treatment of phosphate rock with sulfuric acid to produce superphosphate, a fertilizer, before opening a fertilizer factory.

Although now a bete noir of environmentalists, man-made fertilizers, partly due to the park grass experiment that revealed their damage to nature, have helped feed the world.

Revealing the insect apocalypse

The Rothamsted moth trap research has been going on since the 1960s. This forms the basis for data on moths in Britain, showing their decline. The moth traps provide the most comprehensive long-term standardized data on insects in the world.

The sixteen traps provide farmers with information on the timing and extent of aphid migrations to avoid heavy prophylactic use of insecticides.

Discoveries of butterflies

Rothamsted discovered the secrets of the migration of painted women: the fact that British-born butterflies return to Africa from northern Europe and the Arctic at the end of summer. It was the Rothamsted radar that took pictures of the butterflies high in the sky, much higher than people thought they flew.

In one of the largest ever citizen science projects, scientists from Rothamsted discovered where butterflies go when they migrate. The butterfly was known to migrate from the continent to the British coast in varying numbers each summer. But scientists previously didn’t know whether the painted lady made the return journey at the end of the summer, like the closely related red admiral, or simply died in Britain.

They discovered that the painted lady did indeed migrate south each fall, but made this return journey at high altitude, out of sight of butterfly observers on the ground. Radar data showed that painted ladies flew at an average altitude of more than 500 meters during their journey south and could reach speeds of 50 km/h.

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