Did Imperial ‘hijack’ a plan to help poor countries?

Further evidence of how Imperial College has ‘muscled in’ on plans for a non-food crop centre at Wye — backed by the United Nations — has emerged in documents released by Kent County Council. The series of proposals, records of meetings, emails and letters confirm that the proposal for the centre at Wye had little, if anything, to do with Sykes, Borysiewicz, Brooks Wilson et al and pre-dated any of the moves by Imperial to close the agricultural sciences division and turn Wye into the South East’s biggest building site.

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The United Nations in New York: has anybody here actually heard of Imperial College?

The documents — released under the Freedom of Information Act — show that the proposal by Countess Sondes and former KCC leader Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart first took shape right at the beginning of 2005, a good nine months before Sir Richard Sykes and Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz hatched their plan for a science park and up to 4,000 houses and at least four months before the Bearman Committee was commissioned to look into the future of the campus. If you are not familiar with the non-food crops centre saga, you can read the full background to it here.

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Sir Sandy’s proposal to the UN: no mention of Imperial’s non-food crops expertise here

Throughout a series of emails and letters between Sir Sandy, Lady Sondes and representatives from the UN, the World Bank and other international organisations, Imperial College is barely deemed worthy of a mention, despite repeated attempts by representatives from Imperial to play the UN crops centre card as somehow central to their Wye Park plan. Indeed, it is clear from the documents — which KCC has again chosen to release as hard copies only to prevent them appearing via an internet search — that Imperial College is included only because it was willing to offer office space to the non-food crops centre in the existing campus buildings.

The documents show that the plan was a genuine and concerted effort by Sir Sandy and Lady Sondes to further the research into natural replacements for products of the petroleum industry and to provide assistance to developing countries. At no point was Imperial College’s self-proclaimed expertise in the field of biofuels and non-food crops mentioned. Ironically, the initial draft of Sir Sandy’s proposal, which was produced in March 2005, said that ‘the University of London-Imperial College Wye would provide co-ordination for agricultural plant breeding research’ — just three months later Imperial was busy closing agriculture at Wye and firing the only agricutural or horticultural scientists who might have been able to provide such co-ordination.

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Lady Sondes’ original letter to the UN: Wye was only mentioned as a ‘struggling’ agricultural institution

One of the major and most troubling questions that arises from the documents is quite how the non-food crops centre — with its aim of promoting and disseminating cheap and succcessful methods of non-food crop use to poor countries — would exist successfully within Imperial’s wider Wye Park. For the park to succeed, any research into non-food crops must be handed on to Imperial’s spin-off companies or its multi-national ‘partners’ in the science park to exploit commercially, something that might sit uneasily with a benevolent, non-commercial non-food crops centre dedicated to easing poverty in the developing world.

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The only real mention of Imperial: Sir Sandy’s letter to Margaret Beckett

Imperial College likes to claim that it is one of the top three science universities in Britain and one of the top five in Europe. However, in page after page of letters and emails to leaders of intergovernmental organisations, it does not get a mention. In only one letter — a communication to Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State at Defra sent by Sir Sandy in June last year — does Imperial feature and then only as the host in a bid for government support for the centre.

The letter is a virtual pro-forma and one of a set sent to various ministers, ambassadors and NGO leaders in the space of a fortnight and is the only one that mentions Imperial College suggesting that while it may be a recognisable ‘name’ in the UK, it is rather off the radar when it comes to the United Nations, the World Bank and other international organisations.

As soon as KCC uploads the scans of the documents to its website, we’ll post the link here.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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