The Food and Environment Research Agency was launched with dreams of commercial development – into the teeth of the financial crisis. Chief executive Andrew Belton tells Ruth Keeling that he remains optimistic
Last year saw the creation of the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), which brought together a number of operations run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), including its central science laboratory, plant health division, and seeds and plant health inspectors. Part of the vision for the new organisation, based just outside York, was that it would grow through new mergers, via consultancy work, and by providing space for commercial outfits in an attempt to become one of the ‘innovation hubs’ that the government wants to see established around the country.
Chief executive Adrian Belton (pictured above) admits that launching the new agency in the face of a severe financial crisis – it came into existence in April 2009, seven months after the prime minister announced that the Treasury would be bailing out the banks – has been a real challenge. Although Fera’s first business plan accepts that it will be challenging to even maintain existing business levels, Belton says he is “quietly confident” that the agency can grow and points out that non-government income – from work such as testing new ingredients or carrying out safety tests for the food industry – exceeded expectations.
Belton believes that Fera’s new structure – which mixes professionals to create interdisciplinary teams based around projects – means that people are learning from each other and are more easily able to identify new business opportunities. “Whilst we’re anticipating tough times ahead as far as the public sector is concerned, we still see opportunities for the work of the agency in other sectors”, he says.
Belton is also optimistic that Fera’s main site near York – which is currently operating at 70 per cent capacity – can attract outsiders, including commercial bodies, to use the agency’s facilities. In fact, he argues that the downturn makes Fera an attractive prospect. “We think we can be a port in a storm,” he says, suggesting that research institutions might merge with Fera. “It is going to get a bit rough out there for a few people, and we think we’ve got the strength and the facilities to take in even more business” – and, potentially, to become a European bio-science hub.
This vision of Fera as the heart of a science hub involves the University of York down the road, and Belton says relations with the institution have improved markedly since Fera inherited a damaged relationship. “There has been some history,” admits Belton – largely because the agency’s predecessors were seen as secretive about their work. Although Fera does carry out work with national security implications – such as helping to develop plans for handling the aftermath of a chemical or biological attack – Belton says that there “is no reason not to be more forthcoming about the nature of the work we can do”.
Relations between the two organisations have improved to the point where there are plans to combine Fera’s chief scientist role with a chair at the university. That, says Belton, “is a very marked contrast to the way the relationship used to be”.
There is the expectation – although no firm plans have emerged – that more organisations from the food and environment science sector could be brought under Fera’s wing. Belton says the original merger has gone very smoothly, although the Government Decontamination Service – which joined the merger at a late stage – has taken a little longer to bed in. He believes the flexible structure of the organisation – the organising of work and people around projects, rather than in disciplines – means that Fera should be able to grow, or shrink, with relatively little upheaval.
The organisation’s structure, which brings together Fera’s 900 staff in a single resource pool, was adopted in order to get the most out of its limited resources and make sure it is quick to respond to new demands. In fact, Belton says, Defra adopted the idea after he implemented it at Natural England. The main point, he adds, is that the structure “is creating a sense of one organisation” for staff, rather than a bunch of separate organisations sitting in the same building.
Wandering around Fera’s headquarters, the visitor gets an idea of the magnitude of the enterprise. For a start, the site is massive: 80 acres, housing some four kilometres of lab bench and a wild animal enclosure where Fera is testing contraception programmes in an attempt to control the UK’s wild boar and parakeet populations. There is also an incredible range of work going on: chemical decontamination; identification of non-native creatures that have stowed away in food imports; radar detection of bird migration to minimise the impact of wind farms (see also boxes).
Belton – who seems as passionate as anyone he works with, and says that he is “having more fun in my career than I have had at any time” – accepts that staff at Fera have taken “some time” to settle into the new structure. But he believes the benefits of policymakers, scientists and inspectors working together on plant health or honey bees are quickly becoming evident to the workforce. “We’re starting to see some of the benefits coming through now,” he says. “By learning more about what goes on elsewhere, people can see the linkages and some of the synergy on which the business case of the new agency was based.” And, he says, that makes for better work by Fera – whether that is policy advice to a department, or a service for a commercial customer.
Fera faces a tough challenge: the vision of it becoming an expanding hub of bioscience expertise has been seriously challenged by the financial crisis. However, if the nascent economic recovery takes hold, Fera’s commercial aspirations have the potential to save it from the looming public sector financial crisis.
At that point, Fera may indeed become a port in the storm, offering a safe home for public sector outfits in the field that are struggling to survive on their own. The recession may have stymied plans to create an ever-growing safari park of food and environmental science – but if Fera can become a Noah’s Ark in the field, that will be seen as an appropriate response to the times we live in.
In 2009, Fera’s National Bee Unit (NBU) won a Civil Service Award for its database – BeeBase – which is used to fight bee disease. Giles Budge, from the unit, says the biggest difficulty they face is identifying bee-keepers. There are 35,000 keepers in the UK, mostly small-scale, with a 50 per cent turnover rate every two years. This ever-changing population means the unit is only ever aware of around half the bee colonies in the country, making it very difficult to check on their health or warn keepers about disease spread. BeeBase is designed to keep track of the UK’s current beekeepers and, in turn, keep them informed about bee disease and health.
Felling oak trees
In Fera’s plant health division, the big concern is Phytophthora ramorum, a disease which is a big killer of oak trees in the USA but has now made its way across the Atlantic. Starting off in some shrub species and a few nurseries, the disease has now spread to trees and heathland, and is found across the South-West of England. In 2008, plant health inspectors and scientists (then in Fera’s precursor organisations) won an award for developing an on-the-spot testing kit which reduced waiting time for results – vitally important for affected nurseries, which had to close their doors to customers until they were given the all-clear. Since then, an even more exact on-site testing kit has been developed. Paul Beales, from Fera, says this will help eradicate the disease: it was recently used to test an estate garden, and the owners were able to isolate and remove affected plants the same day.