BBSRC provides strategic funding to eight institutes that have long-term research programmes and national capabilities that underpin important sectors of the UK economy – including agriculture, food and drink and pharmaceuticals. Last week I had a very productive visit to one of the institutes – IBERS which is part of Aberystwyth University. As well as getting a review of the Institute Strategic Programmes that we fund there, I also spoke to a number of researchers in areas as diverse as ruminant microbiota and biofuels. I hadn’t realised that the Institute was so heavily involved in teaching undergraduates as well as postgraduates and was pleased to see how successfully integrated it has become with the University. I was extremely impressed with the National Plant Phenomics Centre and its capacity for automated imaging and measurement of a range of different plant sizes. The ability to measure both below and above ground phenotypes is impressive. The Institute is also home to the Beacon Biorefining Centre of Excellence which is a partnership between Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea Universities.
I can also report that the sea front in Aberystwyth is nowhere near as damaged as the TV images in January might have suggested – in fact I stayed at a hotel on the sea front which had escaped unscathed from the onslaught of the storms. In fact really the only signs that anything untoward had happened was a slightly battered bandstand and a few piles of sand in places.
At another of the strategically funded institutes I was really pleased that Rothamsted Research has been able to attract Professor Achim Dobermann as its new head. He comes from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, where he was the Deputy Director General for Research. As a soil scientist and agronomist with 25 years’ work experience globally, he is recognized internationally as an authority on science and technology for food security and sustainable management of the world’s major cereal cropping systems.
This research becomes ever more important as I have been reading more about the challenges facing the food landscape both locally and globally and some of the statistics are pretty staggering, for instance, the demand for grain has increased by 90% since 1980; by 2025 demand for meat production will increase by 40%; in 2012 an estimated $40Bn of productivity was lost due to drought and although China and India combined, house a third of the world’s population, they have access to less than 10% of the world’s fresh water.
More large numbers – in a positive sense – come from a third member of the institute family. The John Innes Centre published an independent report last week that showed over a ten year timeframe the institute returns £12 to the UK economy for every £1 invested. The report details how wheat genetics research at JIC has led to increased yields and increased disease resistance in a crop relied on by 1.2Bn people worldwide – leading to an annual contribution of £400M to the UK and £8.7Bn to the global economy and how antibiotics research at JIC annually contributes £247M to the global economy and soil bacteria have given rise to half the antibiotics currently in use today.