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The destruction of public science: an Indian scientist records one aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy

The positive and negative aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy are being aired. For the writer, the damaging effects of privatisation, mass unemployment, waste of North Sea oil revenue, financial deregulation and outsourcing far outweigh the rapprochement with Gorbachev – the only positive which comes readily to mind.
Dr Devinder Sharma writes today:

cambridge plant breeding instituteThe erstwhile Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge (UK)

”Margaret Thatcher, 87, died yesterday. She is being hailed as the Iron Lady who transformed Britain. Every newspaper across the globe has paid rich tributes to her. Some have even carried her obituary on the front page, which is quite a rare honour.

”I only know that she had a steely resolve. Whatever she thought of doing, she did it. That’s what I have read over the years. And knowing the determination with which she destroyed public sector science, I can understand why and how she earned the title Iron Lady. Nevertheless, let me share this story of how Britain’s only woman Prime Minister, the unyielding Margaret Thatcher, eclipsed one of the world’s best known research centre in plant sciences, which was emerging as a global leader in plant molecular biology and genomics.

”I am talking of the famed Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Cambridge.

”For any plant scientist, the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge was a Mecca. As a student of plant breeding I too nourished the desire to make it one day to PBI. But by the time I reached the age to visit PBI as a researcher it had already been sold-off to Unilever. Later, in 1998, Unilever sold it to Monsanto. I remember the controversy over the priceless plant germplasm collections that PBI had, at the time it was sold to Unilever. After a lot of public pressure, the plant collections were shifted to another public sector research institute, John Innes Research Centre in Norwich.

”The sale of PBI to Unilever was a great loss to independent science, and of course a loss to humanity.

”It was in 1996 that I went to Cambridge as a Press Fellow. One fine day I called up Sir Ralph Riley, a very distinguished plant geneticist, who also happened to be the founder director of PBI. He came to see me at the Wolfson College, and very politely offered to give me a tour of Cambridge to show me around some of the better known places for plant genetic research. This was indeed a treat. ”After showing me the pub where Watson and Crick had dashed to after discovering the DNA structure, he drove me around to what used to be the PBI. Parked his car somewhere, got out and pointing to the research farm, he said:

“This is where plant breeding died.”

”I can never forget those words.

”I asked him whether PBI was incurring losses because that’s the only economic reason why a research institute would be sold-off. On the contrary, he said, when PBI was sold by Margaret Thatcher to MNC Unilever, it was bringing in a revenue of (British) Pound 10 million a year against an expenditure of Pound 4 million/year. I don’t know how you would take it, but how can any sane person justify selling-off a profit earning research centre? But then, that was the Iron Lady. She earned the title because of her dictatorial role in pushing privatisation. ”Subsequently, Sir Ralph Riley wrote:

“Unfortunately after I had ceased to have any involvement with the AFRC the government privatised that part of the PBI activity concerned with variety production even though it was generating a return to the Government of about £10 million per year from a total cost in the Institute of about 4 million pounds per year. Thus the work that we had done to bring fundamental and closely applied work together, to permit easy crossfeeding was destroyed. Nevertheless, it may be that it (the former PBI) provides a model that will subsequently be followed by others.” (See page 395-396 of this Royal Society publication:

To read the whole article go to Ground Reality.