Minister ‘optimistic’ about the future of AFBI

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Over the course of the past 18 months, DARD has been in discussions with AFBI’s senior management and Board on how the Institute can reposition itself to meet the priority needs of government and industry while responding to the budget reductions that will be affecting all parts of the public sector for the remainder of this decade.

At the very heart of these discussions has been recognition that AFBI has a key strategic role to play in providing the excellent science and research that will help sustain and grow the agri-food sector.

However, there has also been an acceptance that AFBI cannot sustain this scientific excellence across the existing breadth of scientific disciplines from the government funding that will be available to it. Therefore, difficult choices have been necessary as we have sought to focus available funding on the most strategically important areas of the DARD work programme delivered by AFBI.

I have considered carefully AFBI’s 2020 Strategy and the range of cost savings proposals within it. The most significant of those relate to the AFBI estate and DARD’s funding for certain research programmes. I have agreed AFBI’s proposal to close its Crossnacreevy site. DARD funding will be withdrawn from the arable research programme and the production of recommended variety lists for grass, clover and cereals. The Official Plant Testing Station and the Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability testing function will be relocated from Crossnacreevy to another AFBI site. DARD will not continue to provide funding to the commercial potato breeding programme beyond October 2016 and DARD funding will be withdrawn from poultry production and renewable energy and biomass research. I have asked AFBI to explore alternative funding streams and cost sharing possibilities for the mushroom and apple production research platforms and to report back to me later in the year on the conclusions of its discussions with potential partners.

However, our discussions with AFBI have not simply been about cuts. They have also been about repositioning AFBI to be able to exploit other funding opportunities. AFBI needs to continue to expand its portfolio of non-DARD customers. Since its creation in 2006, AFBI has been particularly successful in finding new customers and new sources of revenue. It has used the very substantial funding it gets from DARD as the platform from which to leverage funding from elsewhere. I want this to continue and I want it to grow. I want AFBI to be ambitious and to be outward looking, delivering world class science from its facilities here in the north. We will all benefit from this and I know that the AFBI Board and senior management team share that drive and that ambition.

To help AFBI in this new phase of its development, we are currently developing some very exciting plans for the AFBI estate. These would see AFBI consolidating onto a smaller number of sites with modern, efficient, leading edge facilities. I would hope to be in a position to bid for substantial funding to deliver these plans during the next budget period.

In addition, I would like to explore new mechanisms that would enable us to become involved in collaborative research with other regions and countries. Research is, by its nature, relatively high risk and expensive, and we need to be able to maximise the returns we can achieve from our available investment.

Of course, I recognise the challenges AFBI will face in realigning the size and skills mix of its workforce with this new strategic direction, particularly given the specialist nature of its work. It is currently administering a voluntary exit scheme as a first step in this realignment. However, I am optimistic about the future of AFBI and I believe that this strategic repositioning will place the Institute on a much sounder footing to move forward with confidence and to continue to play a leading role in the development of our agri-food industry.