In this paper we review recent, radical changes in the structure and funding of agricultural and food research in the United Kingdom. We assemble data on the contributions of both public and private institutions during the past fifty years to put these changes in greater perspective. They are then explained by the interaction of proactive governmental policies for the agricultural and food industries, driven by external considerations, with more reactive policies, motivated by problems particular to these industries. Essentially, the assumption that government intervention is required only when market incentives fail has dictated that public funding should be reallocated from technology transfer activities, and ‘productivity enhancing’ and ‘near market’ research, to ‘basic’ research, which affects a broader range of industries than just the food and agriculture industries, and to ‘public interest’ research on pressing problems of food safety and environmental protection. We conclude that the much heralded notion of ‘progress through partnership’ of the public and private sectors is not succeeding since the latter has not, taken up the research abandoned by the former.