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Crushed: the countryside's finest scientists

Friday 17 March 2006

Countryside commentator John Sheard laments that, once again, government employees doing a proper job of work are crushed under the growing avalanche of Whitehall bean counters

SOME 15 years ago, I would regularly take a pleasant drive along the northern shores of Morecambe Bay to talk to a bunch of marvellous scientists who spent their time watching grass grow, breeding worms or - on a more sensational note - measuring the radioactivity on mountain peaks in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.

To the locals of Grange-over-Sands and its environs, the occupants of the Victorian country house overlooking the Bay must have seemed like the mad scientists of comic book legend. In fact, by explaining to me a laymen's terms the science behind some extremely singular experiments, they taught to me more about the newish science of ecology in those brief visits than I have learned in the rest of a career spanning almost five decades.

Morecambe Bay – once top research centre. If used please credit tourist board
Morecambe Bay - Photo: English Nature

Watching the grass grow on a mountainside in the Howgills was, to members of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, a simple method of predicting the potential effects of global warming. By planting seeds from the same grasses at intervals up the mountainside, they were able to chart the difference in growth caused by average temperature differences that got lower the higher you went ie, 1 degree C= X millimetres of growth.

Simple? How about this: to tackle what was then a very serious problem indeed, acid rain, they had discovered that pine forests absorbed the acid into their needles. When these fell, and decayed, the acid leached into the soil and from there into the rivers, killing off young trout and salmon.

So they found a worm that could digest those fallen pin needles and actually convert the acid into alkali, thus saving our rivers and their fish, a huge boon for northern England, Scotland and Wales, where angling is a major source of income.

And they were also looking after the hill farmers of the Lakes and the Dales by monitoring radio-active hot-spots brought to our shores from Chernobyl years before. Sheep reared in such places could not be taken to market for obvious reasons. By monitoring the gradual fall in radio-activity, the scientists allowed farmers to bring that land back into production.

Sadly, that institute is long gone, absorbed years ago into the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to save money. And this week, the axe fell on that too as the dead hand of Gordon Brown, having blown billions on hospitals and school for improvements that never arrived, searched round desperately to refill the black hole he has created in the government finances (see News).

As usual, it is the people at the pointy end who will get the chop, the people who exposed the dangers of genetically modified crops and, half a century ago, realised that the indiscriminate use of DDT was killing off wildlife and posing a real threat to humans.

Now I do not expect a politician or a Whitehall pen-pusher to make the link between acid rain, pine needles and a worm: it took me a long time to get my head round this idea, even with one-on-one explanations by transcendently brilliant scientists.

The natural environment is a series of links, an endlessly long chain in which changes to one link can have massive effects on the one next door. Changes that are virtually miniscule at one end of the chain can arrive at the other end like an avalanche.

It takes a well-trained and subtle mind to spot these changes - and a very patient one to explain them. So what do: we sack some of the very few people we have with such talents and it will be years before such sackings show any savings: its will cost more than £40 million just to pay the redundancies.

What aggrieves me most is that these decisions have been taken by a Government which has created between 700,000 and 900,000 new civil service jobs(or rather, non-jobs) whose costs, with pension benefits, run into tens of billions. Virtually all of them work in the cities at "out-reach" jobs like teaching people how to be better parents - or as PR people needed to keep the government machine spinning.

As the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said this week, sacking these ecologists will reduce Britain to the second division of world science in the environment. No wonder our best brains go abroad!

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