My first public engagement of the week was an appearance – together with my colleague Marion Guillou, the president of INRA – to give evidence before the House of Lords Select Committee EU Sub-Committee D on Innovation in EU Agriculture. RCUK had already provided written evidence, as had some of our Institutes. The questions were sharp and exploratory, and allowed us to develop a considerable number of the relevant arguments. Since an audio record is available, and a video record and corrected transcript will become available via the same website before too long, I do not rehearse these arguments further. Last week’s publication of Global Food and Farming Futures also helped, and there was also an announcement that the Government will soon be publishing its thoughts on the commercial production of genetically modified (i.e. via recombinant technology) crops.

As so often, the focus of my visits this week seemed to cluster around a specific topic, and this week plant breeding was to the fore, with a meeting with the British Society of Plant Breeders, held at the Ickleton offices of the RAGT seed company. Improved breeding, driven by modern genomics, is a key part of any scientific analysis of plant (and animal) improvement, and we had a variety of wide-ranging discussion that I found extremely informative. An independent report by DTZ indicated that investment in plant breeding gave a 40-fold return on investment (compared to the 5- to 15-fold ROI more typical of scientific research). The BSPB’s Research and Development Group provides a useful interface for gathering generic industry opinion of what kinds of underpinning science are going to be most important.

The same theme – genomics-driven analysis and improvement of Brassicas– was part of another meeting at the University of Warwick, where inter alia we were shown a variety of projects linking molecular networks derived by the methods of systems biology to physiological performance in a considerable number of species.

I also attended a very interesting meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology to debate “The outcome of resource allocation following the CSR”. Fluent accounts were given by Sir Adrian Smith (DGKI), Prof Malcolm Grant (Provost of UCL) and Prof Patrick Vallance (Senior Vice President of GSK), with much of the subsequent discussion rehearsing the economic benefits to be had from the investment in S&T. One item of discussion hinged on whether we should invest in topics for which there was little or no existing industry, and I stressed that for Industrial Biotechnology and the Knowledge Based BioEconomy it was exactly this that provided much of the opportunity! Once there was no search engine industry, but this did not stop investment in Google, Yahoo and the like…

There has been a certain amount of speculative chatter in the blogosphere following the announcement of various changes to our funding arrangements, and in particular to the announcement that we wish to sharpen our strategy in neuroscience. Since some of the claims have been pretty wild, I shall set down some pertinent facts (given that it is entirely normal for funders to set down their broad strategies in public, as we have done – indeed it would be seen as very obtuse if we did not!).

In BBSRC we are well aware of the outstanding international status of UK neurosciences community, and proud of the role we play in supporting it.  However, we have a significant challenge ahead in sustaining the quality of the UK biosciences base whilst increasing our efforts to contribute to the major challenges that face the UK and the world, and that are reflected in the strategic priorities set out in our Strategic Plan.   

We have flagged the need for change in neurosciences because we spend a very substantial proportion – some 13% – of our grants budget on neurosciences but very little of that science addresses our strategic priorities. This is despite the manifest opportunities that neuroscience research has to contribute to them, and the considerable effort we have put into their promotion.

Even if we reduced grant funding to neuroscience by just 20%, the area would still be receiving some 10% of the entire grants budget of the BBSRC committees, which is a very major commitment to the field. What we would really like to see is a significant proportion of our excellent neuroscientists applying their talents and energy to the pressing issues in (e.g.) healthy ageing, diet and health, animal health and welfare, the 3Rs, etc., that contribute to our strategic priorities. A 20% shift in that direction would be a huge boost to some important but neglected areas of science and would be a win for all of us, enabling BBSRC to maintain a more balanced portfolio of neuroscience research that helps us secure a good budget for bioscience into the future.

It is worth stressing that we have not changed our remit and remain open to excellent fundamental research proposals in all our areas of neuroscience. Equally, we have not suggested that science appropriate to BBSRC is directed elsewhere: there is a cross-council funding agreement that ensures that a home is found for any serious research proposal from the academic community, and we all continue to abide by its provisions. But we do have to manage our funding to ensure that resources are appropriately distributed across our science and between our priorities. Hopefully, the relevant community will understand this minor rebalancing of our funding priorities and will be imaginative, helpful and supportive.

Many studies require tools to prioritise gene that may be causative in a process under study, and a useful new paper summarises some of the free web tools available to help. Since combinations of so-called weak learners usually do better at these kinds of predictions, an obvious next step is to combine their outputs.

Life is not static, and many experimental measurements make it clear that oscillations have a significant role in biochemical signaling. I have had a longstanding personal interest in this, including in how they might be modified by coupling between pathways and/or by external forcing, where nonlinearities should lead one to expect the appearance of modes (frequencies) different from those shown by either individual pathway. A new paper sets out the unexpectedly rich dynamic behaviour that can follow when this is done.

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