Dairy research barely alive in the UK, warn scientists

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Research and development, Milk, Uk

Dairy research and development in the UK has been systematically
destroyed, warn two senior ex-officials, seriously damaging the
potential for the country's industry to compete against foreign
players.

Funding crises, staff shortages and closures mean the UK's once highly respected dairy research base now barely exists, Donald Muir, an ex-research head told DairyReporter.com​.

His words are the starkest warning yet that the UK dairy industry faces a research and development black hole, which could threaten its ability to compete in the future.

Muir's old research centre, the Hannah Institute in Scotland, closed down in spring this year to the concern of both unions and scientists.

Hannah's reputation in dairy R&D had been world-class, helping the industry in a range of areas from extending the shelf life of milk to cutting edge work on microbacteria and caseins. It also helped devise the means to make cream liqueurs, like Baileys.

Closing Hannah has heightened fears that the UK dairy industry will become increasingly reliant on foreign sources to keep up with changing market demand.

"It was the final nail in the coffin,"​ said Muir, who retired from Hannah two years ago. "Some of the bigger companies still have substantial R&D facilities, but these tend to be multinational firms with headquarters outside the UK."

Research and development in UK dairy began suffering more than two decades ago, after the government cut funding and told centres to sell their research, another ex-industry researcher, Frank Harding, told DairyReporter.com​.

"Research places like Hannah could not get enough cash from an industry that had good research for nothing and now had to pay for it,"​ said Harding, who served on the consultative boards of both Hannah and the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD) at Reading.

The NIRD has since been disbanded, despite being credited with developing ground-breaking technology like infra red microscope analysis. One single part of the Institute, the Centre for Dairy Research (CEDAR) at the University of Reading, now flies the flag for dairy research in the UK.

Harding and Muir are not the only two people concerned about a lack of fundamental research in the British dairy industry.

"Little or no opportunity exists for potential investors to try out new technologies without first making huge commitments,"​ said a government report this year. It said the UK had missed opportunities by not investing in research on the genetic make-up of milk, as other countries had done.

The report called for a new central testing facility, and added not enough was known about gaps in R&D across the dairy sector and that domestic companies were not sharing enough knowledge.

"As dairy companies became larger and larger, they often wanted research to be confidential to them,"​ said Harding.

He said this had led to greater emphasis on product development rather than pure R&D to underpin the industry, known as 'blue sky' research; helping to drive scientists out of the sector.

"There is no company I know of that invests in blue sky research. The industry used to attract scientists because of scientific interest in the business. As R&D dried up, many companies have become processing centres, so inevitably you get a shortage of scientists."

Shortages of food scientists have emerged across the food industry in recent years, and both Muir and Harding said they were concerned at a lack of technical expertise across the UK dairy sector.

"The government is not going to do anything in the current political climate. The industry has to be pro-active here, they have to see the long-term benefits,"​ said Muir, who suggested introducing more industry sponsorships for science students.

Many UK companies simply do not have the funds to put into long-term 'blue sky' research programmes, however. Cost pressures have held down earnings across the sector, leaving little room for R&D projects that do not offer rapid returns on investment.

Calls for more industry-wide co-ordination on R&D have not yet been heeded, leaving some in the sector concerned for the future.

"There is no magic bullet, but we need an industry champion to help the industry speak with one, coherent voice,"​ said Muir. "Politically, if the industry does not speak with one voice, there is no way of having any influence."

Related topics: R&D

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