Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK's public funding body for research and training in the 'non-medical life sciences', and one of the seven Research Councils sponsored through the UK Government's Office of Science and Technology.

Established in 1994 to replace the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), the BBSRC has an annual budget of £220m (in 2002). Whereas the SERC's mandate was to advance science in general, the BBSRC's purpose is far narrower: 'to sustain a broad base of interdisciplinary research and training to help industry, commerce and Government create wealth'.

This role developed out of a 1993 government white paper on science, Realizing Our Potential, which was intended to 'produce a better match between publicly funded strategic research and the needs of industry'. As part of this, the research funding councils were to be obliged to develop 'more extensive and deeper links' with industry, and 'to recruit more of their senior staff from industry'.

Corporate links

Despite its being a public funding body, the BBSRC's chairman until January 2002 was Peter Doyle, a director of biotech giant Syngenta and the former executive director of GM company Zeneca (now part of Syngenta). Doyle originally took up his BBSRC post while still Zeneca's executive director.

Doyle's replacement as Chief Executive was Prof Julia Goodfellow, the wife of geneticist Dr Peter Goodfellow, head of discovery research at biotech/pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline. Currently, GlaxoSmithKline also has 3 representatives sitting on BBSRC boards. They are far from the only representatives of large corporations. Syngenta sits on 3 boards, AstraZeneca on 2, Pfizer on 4, and Unilever on 2. Also represented are Genetix plc, Lilly and Merck Sharp & Dohme. In these circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that biotechnology has been swallowing up the lion's share of the BBSRC's research funds.

According to George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian in 2009:

The BBSRC no longer publishes the CVs of the committee members who decide how public money should be spent. But in 2003, when this information was available on its website, I found that the committees were stuffed with executives from Syngenta, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Pfizer, Genetix plc, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Celltech and Unilever. The funding decisions it made appeared to reflect their priorities rather than the wider public interest.[1]

Biotech role

In January 1999, the BBSRC set aside £15m for 'a new initiative to help British researchers win the race to identify the function of key genes'. In July the same year, £19m was to be spent on new research facilities to 'underpin the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the UK' through 'work on genetically modified crops'. In October, £11m was allocated to projects that would enable the UK 'to remain internationally competitive in the development of gene-based technologies'.

The BBSRC has also won an extra £50 million in funding since Lord David Sainsbury became Science Minister. There has also been a 300 per cent increase in the grant given by the BBSRC to the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which has over the years also benefitted from Lord Sainsbury's personal support and investment. The JIC is a plant biotechnology centre with major research alliances with Dupont and, until recently, Syngenta.

The JIC is one of eight strategic life sciences research institutes in the UK for which the BBSRC provides core funding. Among the other institutes are the Roslin Institute (former home of Dolly the sheep), the Institute of Food Research (see Mike Gasson), Rothamsted Research (formerly the Institute of Arable Crops Research), the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Horticulture Research International (HRI, headed by Prof Mike Wilson) and Science Media Centre (in year 2011-12)[2].

The BBSRC has been accused of instituting what has been called 'a gagging order' via the BBSRC code that prevents all publicly funded researchers from speaking out on concerns about GM foods by defining this as becoming 'involved in political controversy on biotechnology and biological sciences'. Disobeying leaves researchers, including even retired staff who are Fellows of BBSRC funded institutes, open to being sued or dismissed. The reality is, of course, that this is a one way street where scientists at or formerly at such institutes can (and do) hype GM to their hearts' content. For instance, several of the scientists who work for the biotech industry funded lobby group Cropgen simultaneously work for or are Fellows of BBSRC-funded institutes. The BBSRC's controls are aimed strictly at the sceptics.

It is also from BBSRC institutes, like the JIC and the IFR, that the government draws many of its key advisers on GM - for example, Mike Gasson who heads the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes and who also has a seat on ACRE.

On taking up her appointment as the BBSRC's Chief Executive, Prof Goodfellow made it clear that it was business as usual and that agricultural biotechnology would not be neglected. 'Across the full remit of BBSRC research we can see important advances that will increase prosperity and enhance the quality of life for all. Not least among these is agricultural research where the BBSRC will be able to contribute across many areas to the future of this important industry.'

However, the BBSRC's strategy of encouraging biotechnology industry investment into UK agricultural research had completely failed by summer 2004 when Syngenta, the only major firm still working on GM agriculture in the UK, announced it was moving all its GM-related operations to the United States. [3]

However, since early 2003 the pro-GM lobby group Sense About Science, seeing which way the wind was blowing, had been running a campaign with the support of the BBSRC called 'Public-Good Plant Breeding: what are the international priorities?'. The project aimed to encourage more public and foundation money for the introduction of plants 'developed through biotechnology' into the developing world.

The BBSRC also puts public money into the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) which promotes GM crops in developing countries. Other funders include Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Another collaborator in the 'Public-Good Plant Breeding' project is the BBSRC-funded John Innes Centre. The JIC would benefit greatly from an increase in public funding, given the rapidly diminishing investment coming to it from the biotechnology industry, and in particular the pull out from the JIC by Syngenta part way through its £50 million investment programme.

In 2004 the BBSRC was recently given a clean bill of health in a report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, under the chairmanship of Dr Ian Gibson MP, a former member of the JIC's governing body. The only serious fault that the committee found with the BBSRC was that it was not being pro-active enough in communicating with the public about GM in such a way as to gain public trust for such research. [4]


Council 2015

Appointments Board Member

Audit Board Members 2015

Remuneration Board Members 2015

Previous Personnel

  • Chief Executive - Professor Douglas Kell was appointed Chief Executive of BBSRC in October 2008. He was Director of Research of the IBERS (now IBERS) in Aberystwyth from 1997-2002. He has served on the Programme Management Committees of three LINK schemes and the RCUK Basic Technology Panel, and was a member of BBSRC from 2001-2006. He co-founded Aber Instruments, a leading company in on-line biomass measurement.
  • Former Chief Executive (2007-2008) - Professor Julia Goodyear CBE Julia joined BBSRC in January 2002 after more than 20 years at Birkbeck College, University of London, where she was Vice-Master and head of the School of Crystallography. Julia was responsible for an internationally recognised research group and her ongoing research interests included the use of computer simulation techniques to study the structure and function of large molecules. She was appointed Vice-Master of Birkbeck College in 1998 and Professor of Biomolecular Science in 1995.

International links

Following on from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) the BBSRC has developed an international science Funding Schemes. [9]

BBSRC has five schemes to foster international collaboration in science and technology:

BBSRC sponsors and provides core strategic grants to various institutes. The institutes are supported through a mix of funding sources including government departments, industry and the EU.They have charitable status and are companies limited by guarantee.

Sustainable agriculture & land use

Plant & microbial science

Food research

Biomedical research including cloning & epigenetics

Animal health & welfare

Contact Details

Polaris House North Star Avenue Swindon SN2 1UH UK

Tel: +44 (0)1793 413200 Fax: +44 (0)1793 413201



  1. George Monbiot (2009) Plight of the honeybee stung by funding from the chemical industry, The Guardian, 14 Oct 2009, acc 30 Mar 2013
  2. Science Media Centre, About the SMC, List of Funders 2011-12, 10.2012, accessed 07.09.2013.
  3. GM research collapses in UK as last big firm quits, The Independent on Sunday, 04 July 2004
  4. Public engagement
  5. Council BBSRC, accessed 2 April 2015
  6. Appointments Board BBSRC, accessed 2 April 2015
  7. Audit Board BBSRC, accessed 2 April 2015
  8. Remuneration Board BBSRC, accessed 2 April 2015