Lab rats flee sinking centre

South Africa’s most important agricultural research centre is suffering an exodus of key veterinary experts — ­including the country’s leading ­researcher on foot-and-mouth disease — as ­budget cuts bite deeply into their projects.

The Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, which falls under the central office of the ­Agricultural Research Council (ARC), is South Africa’s oldest and most prestigious ­veterinary research institution.

Onderstepoort has, among other things, the country’s largest laboratory for the production of a vaccine against foot-and-mouth, the ­deadly disease that has ravaged the agricultural sector.
One of South Africa’s leading experts on the disease, Gavin Thomson, who was also a ­director of Onderstepoort, is among those who have recently quit the organisation.

In the past six months two other senior mana­gers have also resigned. Thomson is understood to have left because of a lack of funds and has now taken up a new post in Nairobi. Another senior researcher, Dave Burger, specialising in horticulture at the ARC-Roodeplaat institution, has also resigned, taking with him a large part of the funding he won.

Sources at Onderstepoort say the head of the rabies unit may be forced to resign because he is not a South African citizen.

While cutbacks and poor working conditions have already resulted in a loss of expertise at the ARC, some employees say that 11 ­other staffers are planning to throw in the towel. “I have some very exciting experiments that I want to see completed, but when they are ­finished, I cannot afford to remain in an institution that I see crumbling around me because of gross mismanagement,” says one of the staff members.

Permanent staff may be forced to work for funded organisations in the private sector or, alternatively, to leave the country. The council, says ARC corporate ­liaison ­officer Mari­ana Purnell, “owns and manages 13 institutes as well as nearly 40 laboratories, office buildings and research farms in support of its ­mission. The upkeep of these facilities has a major impact on the budget.”

The ARC admits to serious budget cuts: in 1998/99 its parliamentary grant was scaled down by R52-million to R286-million. ­Present funding policies have resulted in conflicting demands between public interest research and commercial interest research.

The morale of employees at Onderstepoort appears to be low across the board, with permanent staff facing severe difficulties due to what they consider to be the uneven distribution of the ARC budget. This year Onderstepoort only had enough funds to pay 80% of salaries.

According to sources there was not even sufficient money left to pay the ­electricity bill, let alone any research. Yet the facility was still expected to balance its budget for the 2000/01 financial year. The main source of concern among Onderstepoort staff is that the ARC is cutting back on other benefits, including pension and medi­cal aid.

Salaries have not been increased for two years: employees have received no cost-of-living increases and the ARC warned that there will be no salary increase for the next three years.

“The state of Onderstepoort is a crisis for the South African agricultural sector as we will be losing important research in community veterinary services,” says Adriaan du Toit, a union official of the Research Council Trade Union. He says it is a serious problem for the country that an international institution like ­Onderstepoort should reflect a bleak future with depleted animal facilities and a skeleton staff.

The ARC was formally established in April 1992 as a state department under the Department of Agriculture and was subsequently transformed into a parastatal.

According to sources a proposal was put forward that Onderstepoort should be amalgamated with the University of Pretoria. Onderstepoort has since been notified that an amalgamation with the government-controlled ­Vac­cine Factory (Onderstepoort Biological Products) may now be on the cards.

According to Dr Rob Adam, Director ­General of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, problems regarding the budgetary allocation to the ARC had been experienced last year.

“Following high-level discussions between myself, the director general of the Department of Agriculture and the CEO of the council, the matter had been re-examined and then resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned,” says Adam.

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