House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Forest Research Inquiry – Oral Evidence

Today the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee took oral evidence on the Forest Research Inquiry into the effects of the spending review, and research priorities in the forestry research community. The evidence session involved witnesses from a variety of backgrounds including academia, industry, public bodies and the learned societies, who were represented by Jackie Caine, Science Policy Officer at the Society of Biology. The Minister of State for Agriculture and Food the Rt Hon Jim Paice MP was also present.

Forest research is highly important because forests require active management and appropriate research will help us to understand how best to obtain the unique set of benefits forests can provide. The importance of this was outline in the National Ecosystem Assessment which was released last month. Forests are also experiencing a unique set of threats including novel pests and diseases, and climate change which needs to be researched to aid future adaptation.

The effect of the spending review on forest research in the UK and current funding strategies were one of the main topics covered by the committee’s questions. Both Forestry Commission and Research Council funding is declining. Currently the government spends around £10 million on forestry research however this is expected to decline to approximately £6 million by 2015 when the cuts have taken full effect. Almost 30% of jobs at Forest Research will be cut over the period to 2015. Reduced levels of funding available to the agency Forest Research may reduce the agency’s capacity to leverage funding from other sources such as industry and Europe. The Minister said that even with the budget cuts and fewer scientists research in priority areas will be maintained by redirecting funding from other areas.

A range of funders and a range of perspectives on research priorities may be useful for forest research in the UK. It was the opinion of Stuart Goodall from the Confederation of Forest Industries that potential income for forest research from industry is fairly modest. The sale of high quality wood and other forest products was suggested as one way in which the forestry sector could become self sustaining and fund it’s own research, however this would take time and investment. Several innovative approaches to obtaining new funding were suggested including using the carbon markets and approaching international forestry companies with high revenues to request funding and investment in future forest products and technology. Whatever the funding source is it needs to be secure over long periods because of the time frame of forest research. There was agreement that in the future it would be best for the forestry sector to become self sustaining and pay for its own research. This could be achieved by investing in research now, and developing high quality products. According to the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food the Rt Hon Jim Paice MP it shouldn’t be made mandatory for the private sector to provide funding.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) fund a small amount of forest research within their other programmes. NERC and BBSRC hardly ever receive proposals for forest research because there is widespread belief that forestry is not within their remit. NERC and BBSRC would be happy to consider more proposals for forestry projects. Representatives from NERC and BBSRC were reminded that the research councils have a responsibility to ensure university forestry departments are funded appropriately and have longevity.
If Forest Research is made more independent it may be able to access research council funding in addition to the funding it receives from the Forestry Commission. Public sector organisations are currently excluded from applying for research council funding.

Priority setting by forest research institutions was also scrutinised by the committee. Dr James Pendlebury the Chief Executive of Forest Research reminded the committee that forest research is complex, long term and has numerous priorities that are balanced in the best way possible by Forest Research.

One point of agreement was that forest research needs an overall long term strategy developed by all the stakeholders in an open discussion with better coordination between universities, Forest Research and within Europe. Across the witnesses there was a consensus that the Forest Research Coordination Committee needs to be brought back. In addition the witnesses felt that better transparency is needed in the relationship between Forest Research and the Forestry Commission.

Researchers in academia currently feel that important areas of forest research are not being considered by the research councils. Appropriate outreach programmes to make sure that research is communicated to the people that use it are vital according to Stuart Goodall.

Among individuals from industry, the Forestry Commission and academia there was concern that UK forests are under managed. More research into how to produce high quality wood and other forest products is needed according to Professor Philip Turner, from the Forest Products Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, but this is currently not a main priority of the research councils or the Forestry Commission.

The ability of Forest Research to monitor and research the impacts of climate change, and emerging diseases such as Phytophthora ramorum is crucial and this shouldn’t be impacted by the spending review. The private sector doesn’t have the skills and experience to carry out this type of research.

Currently no-one takes responsibility for disease monitoring and research into prevention for trees in hedgerows and in public spaces. This is a serious gap in the current research priorities. It was suggested that the Forestry Commission provide an easy to access database documenting their research on particular diseases, the risks associated with the disease and potential solutions. In the future the UKNEA is likely to influence the research priorities of Forest Research.

Finally the committee discussed careers in the forest research sector. Forestry, which will be important for the green economy and green jobs, has been in decline as a profession with few graduates choosing to study the subject. Consequently the numbers of specialist scientists required in forest research such as entomologists and tree pathologists are declining. One of the main causes of the problem is the lack of PhD studentships and potential employers for graduates. The cuts are likely to affect the number of PhD studentships sponsored by Forest Research although no reductions have been made as yet. In addition as a result of the spending review Forest Research the agency is not able to hire new staff. This has significant implications for early career researchers in forestry who, in the past, have undertaken short placements after their doctorate at Forest Research as a way into the profession.

It is of paramount importance that there are scientists available trained in particular aspects of forest research because future threats will act too quickly to wait for a skills base to be re-established.

You can watch the evidence session here.