The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ top scientist has scrapped plans to leave his post, citing the pressure of implementing the UK’s decision to leave the European Union among his reasons for rescinding the resignation he announced in February.
Prof Ian Boyd said he now expected to stay in the role – which sees him advise ministers on evidence for policy decisions and raise the public profile of the department’s science work – for at least another year.
In a blog explaining his decision, Boyd said he felt the need to explain why he had not left Defra at the end of August, as he earlier said he would, after five years in his current post.
He said there were many reasons for the decision, some of which were personal but most of which concerned what was “happening in and around the Defra group”, and the extent to which that “excited him”.
Boyd (pictured below) listed the establishment of UK Research and new opportunities from the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund as offering huge potential for research to deliver “meaningful progress” for the department in a new role as a customer.
“The Defra group needs to lead the intellectual agenda with respect what questions should be tackled by research,” he said.
“For the first time in my experience at Defra, the research community is really in a mood to listen to what challenges government departments such as this.”
However he also made direct reference to the impact and timing of Brexit in his decision to delay leaving the department.
“With all the changes going on in the research sector and also with the UK exiting the EU, and the challenges and opportunities that throws up, this doesn’t feel like the best time for me to pass [the] baton on,” he said.
“Consequently, I have agreed to stay on for at least another year and, with the support of the department, to pursue an ambitious agenda.”
Despite having a comparatively small central staff headcount – its 2016-17 annual report says the core department had around 1,800 employees – Defra is widely seen as being significantly impacted by Brexit. According to the Institute for Government, some 1,200 EU laws relate to its work with the union’s activities affecting 80% of its work.
Today, the Science Advisory Council, which advises and scrutinises the work of Defra published its annual report for 2016-17, which contained a section on the impact of Brexit.
The panel, which reports to Boyd and environment secretary Michael Gove, a leading proponent of Brexit, said it had been supporting the department on the science and evidence challenges of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
“The SAC have discussed concerns, future opportunities and risks for Defra such as the dependency of UK laboratories on EU funding,” it said.
“Input from the natural and social sciences was considered to be very important in determining high-level policy goals and narratives, as well as helping in the design of specific agricultural and environmental policies and science-led surveillance schemes as they evolve from the Common Agricultural Policy and other European legislation.”
It concluded its Brexit observations by saying: “The SAC recognised that whilst the challenges should not be underestimated there are also opportunities, for example, redesigning support for rural communities to obtain multiple public goods.”