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UK’s Leading Agricultural Research Facility Facing Funding Crisis

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

A letter from Rothamsted’s 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.

Worried scientists have said they fear for their work, which is dependent on funding. About 350 scientists and 60 PhD students work at the facility.

Its research includes work 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 the UK.

Rothamsted hit the headlines in 2012 when about 200 anti-genetic modification protesters occupied the site to campaign against their research into a wheat crop that would deter aphids.

Rothamsted receives the majority of its funding as a core grant directly from the government’s UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) department, in five-year cycles. For the past two cycles the institute’s funding has included no inflation costs. For several years the institute has been running at a loss, with the government stepping in occasionally to top up funds.

While the UK was in the EU, Rothamsted also benefited from funding from the European regional development fund, which it is no longer entitled to.

Now, the situation is understood to be at crisis point, with future operations by the facility uncertain.

Karp wrote: “I feel that it is important for me to inform staff that, after a promising start, unfortunately our financial position weakened in the latter part of last year. Despite all our ongoing efforts, including excellent successes from many staff that we can be proud of, our grant targets won for the whole year were not as we had budgeted for.

“Whilst free reserves have been maintained, these still remain lower than we would like and highly susceptible to external factors, and we are currently considering how best to manage our operating model to put our longer-term future on a more secure footing.

“To some extent we have managed the challenges we faced during 2023 through rebalancing funds within the IAE envelope. However, the mitigation steps we have been taking cannot be relied on from now onwards and we do not have enough reserves that we can access immediately.”

Rothamsted has estimated its worth to the UK economy as £3bn a year because its work helps crop yields, both by determining which crops grow most efficiently and by developing plants which are tolerant to diseases and extreme weather.

A large part of the government’s offer to farmers post-Brexit, as they struggle with a lack of workers and new environmental rules for government payments, is promised new research.

This would make farmers be able to work more efficiently, using fewer inputs such as fertiliser, and also need fewer staff as innovations such as robotic vegetable pickers are developed.

A UKRI spokesperson said: “Though a core funder of Rothamsted Research, the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) recognises and upholds the institute’s legal and governance distinctiveness. We encourage our strategically supported institutes to seek research funding from a broad range of funders to support research beyond those activities which we fund through a range of schemes.”

The top Rothamsted experiments

The Park Grass experiment

The Park Grass experiment is one of the longest-running experiments of modern science; it began in 1856 and has been going ever since. What it most vividly shows is how biodiversity plummets when you add fertiliser to hay meadows.

The study is conducted in Rothamsted Park in Harpenden on 2.8 hectares (6.9 acres) of parkland that had been in permanent pasture for at least 100 years. The purpose was originally to find out how to improve hay yields by adding either inorganic fertiliser or organic manures.

However, within a couple of years scientists noticed that wild species diversity massively decreased because the fertilisers changed the soil pH and nutrient composition. On the unfertilised spots, scientists noted 35-45 species, but there were only two or three on those treated with artificial fertiliser. Once established to help crop yields, park grass is now a very important source of evidence for ecologists and soil scientists.

Artificial fertilisers

Sir John Bennet Lawes, 1st Baronet, inherited the Rothamsted estate from his father. He founded the research centre, which first began with his own experiments on the effects of manures on potted plants and field crops in the grounds. He went on to patent treating phosphate rock with sulphuric acid to produce superphosphate, a fertiliser, before opening a fertiliser factory.

Although they are a bete noir of environmentalists now, partly due to the park grass experiment which revealed their harm to nature, human-made fertilisers have helped feed the world.

Revealing the insect apocalypse

Rothamsted’s moth trap survey has been running since the 1960s. This provides the basis of moth data in the UK, which has revealed their decline. The moth traps provide the most comprehensive standardised long-term data on insects in the world.

The 16 traps provide farmers with information on the timing and size of aphid migrations to prevent heavy prophylactic use of insecticides.

Butterfly discoveries

Rothamsted discovered the secrets of the painted lady migration – the fact that British-born butterflies return from northern Europe and the Arctic to Africa at the end of the summer. It was Rothamsted radar that got pictures of the butterflies high up in the air, far higher than people thought they flew.

In one of the largest citizen science projects ever recorded, Rothamsted scientists found out where butterflies go when they migrate. It was known the butterfly migrated from the continent each summer to UK shores in varying numbers. But scientists did not previously know if the painted lady made the return journey at the end of the summer, like the closely related red admiral, or simply died in the UK.

They found the painted lady did indeed migrate south each autumn – but made this return journey at high altitudes, out of view of butterfly observers on the ground. Radar records revealed that painted ladies flew at an average altitude of more than 500 metres on their southbound trip and could clock up speeds of 30mph.


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