Britain’s ability to contain ash dieback disease (Chalara fraxinea) has been compromised. Not only was the Forestry Commission slow to react to the science, in deference to the European Union and the World Trade Organization, as reported in Workers in December 2012, but also by a scandalous shortage of plant pathologists.
Parliament’s Environment Committee heard from senior plant scientists that we are unable to quantify, never mind control, imports of potentially infected firewood.
An audit of plant pathology training and education, published late last year by the British Society for Plant Pathology, reports a serious decline in teaching and research on plant diseases in British universities and colleges. Plant pathology has been lost completely or greatly reduced at eleven universities and colleges, while fewer than half the institutions which teach biology, agriculture or forestry offer courses in plant pathology, the audit found. There are only ten qualified plant pathology experts active in research on tree diseases in Britain and only one research programme on tree pathology in a British university.
British universities have appointed very few plant pathologists in the past 20 years. Many of those who remain are aged over 50. The report attributes the loss of expertise to a shift towards subjects that bring more short-term income into universities.
Those who do manage to graduate with plant science qualifications frequently find themselves unemployed, or forced to take work in other occupations, wasting their skills and knowledge. ■