Last week we held a large and very useful meeting outside Norwich with Institute Directors and Deputy Directors, followed by a joint meeting of Institutes with Council, and then a full Council meeting. Much of the focus of the first meetings was on outlining the Institute Strategic Programme Grants that have just been submitted as part of our upcoming quadrennial Institute Assessment Exercise. Much exciting science was paraded, and it is a good time to be involved in research in biology!

I was very pleased to give my first talk at a Foundation for Science and Technology meeting, this being one entitled “Is there a viable future for biofuels in the UK?”. Last time (PDF) the Foundation had a related discussion (in 2007) there had been considerable scepticism about the potential contribution of biomass and products derived therefrom to fuels in the UK. This time it was very different. The first speaker was Bernie Bulkin, who looks after renewables in the Office for Renewable Energy Deployment at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and gave a masterful survey of the field, and the substantial contribution biomass is expected to make. James Primrose, Global Strategy Manager for Biofuels at BP, summarised the massive investments that BP is putting into biofuels, and highlighted some developments such as Napier Grass plantations in Florida that are already yielding 40 dry tonnes of biomass per hectare. Sam Cockerill, Business Development Manager at Ensus, described the £300M they raised from largely private sources to build a biorefining plant for turning forage wheat into ethanol and high-grade protein for animal nutrition. Such investments make clear that biofuels are now being taken very seriously indeed (especially as the oil price continues to go north). Pleasingly this concords with the relevant part of our own strategy.

My own talk (which will in time be on the web) started with the geological history of photosynthetic CO2 capture into biomass, then concentrated on the biological aspects, including the role of plants in carbon sequestration as part of the overall benefit to be had from energy crops. I stressed the variation in yield that we are likely to get from existing energy crops, the fact that even with conservative estimates of yield and available UK land area we can meet the renewable fuel obligation, the distance we are from the theoretical thermodynamic efficiency, and the scientific drivers such as the opportunities offered by genome-driven breeding for improving both yield and other traits. The talks were followed by some excellent questions, not least about how we might drive UK policy so as to implement this at the level of the UK farmer. As my merchant mariner father used to remind me, ‘the speed of a convoy is the speed of the slowest ship’.

Looking through a few papers, I enjoyed an interesting eponymous article on the value of data, as well as an interesting article on the role of indels in human sequence variation (see also a previous blog on heritability). It is pretty well known that there are many more consumers than producers of the scientific literature, as judged e.g. by the rate of accesses to Open Access papers relative to their citations. Thus, one 2009 Open Access example of my own has nearly 24,000 accesses but as yet only about 30 citations. A new paper summarises and confirms what is known of this, i.e. that the scientific literature reaches out to a vastly greater caucus than just those who contribute to it. What is not entirely known is who they are, and how its value to them might better be captured.

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