Animals and plants have featured heavily over the past week or so. It has been very rewarding to see how much excellent science is going on in the institutes that we strategically fund as they undergo mid-term reviews of their current programmes.

At The Pirbright Institute the presentations of the science at the interim review of the strategically funded grants were well received by the review panel. The work the Institute does in viral diseases of livestock is extremely important. For example, they are developing new vaccines and diagnostic tests for Marek’s disease in chickens. In many cases it is important to be able to distinguish between animals that have been vaccinated and those that are not vaccinated and infected with the disease. Indeed this is important not only for infections close to home such as bovine TB in cattle, but also for diseases such as African horse sickness. Pirbright Institute scientists are working with Racing South Africa and other funders to develop a vaccine for this fatal disease.

With the completion of the new containment facility, the BBSRC National Virology Centre: The Plowright Building, at Pirbright, scientists will now have facilities to match the quality of their science. Indeed this was confirmed by the programme team winning a prestigious construction award for this new building at the British Construction Industry Awards with the building being described as inspirational and as a prime example of “British planning, design, engineering and construction, already attracting worldwide scientific interest” – well done to all involved!

Regarding plants, I also enjoyed attending the interim review of our strategic programmes at Rothamsted Research, where the new Director, Achim Doberman, has been in post since the summer. There is a lot going on at Rothamsted, from the 20:20 Wheat programme through to the field trials of Camelina plants engineered to express omega-3 fish oils.

One thing that caught my attention was the discreetly named Farm Crap App. This App, developed by the SWARM Knowledge Hub and Rothamsted Research, won the Innovation Award at the Soil Association annual conference this month. The App provides farmers with an opportunity to visually assess manure and slurry application rates and to calculate what is being provided in terms of available nutrients, as well as giving an estimate of potential savings in purchased artificial fertilizers. It is available for Android and iOS now.

Perusing Rothamsted’s website I also noticed that Rothamsted is offering an apprenticeship scheme with the local college, Oaklands, as well as summer internships to graduates (new round of applications in February 2015).

You may not realise it but the UK is under assault everyday by millions of invaders as well as endemic enemies. I am not talking about terrorists but the thousands of current and potential pests and pathogens that are currently, or potentially, threatening our livestock, trees and plants. Institutes like Pirbright and Rothamsted are important in finding solutions to such threats but other academic and government organizations such as the APHA and the Sainsbury Laboratories are also carrying out important bioscience research in this area.

The Animal and Plant Health review co-sponsored by GO-Science and Defra identified the need for some coordination of resources in this area such that we can maximise the impact of research for new treatments, diagnosis and evidence gathering for policy. I was pleased, as a member of the steering committee, for the review to be asked to lead on developing a UK Strategy for Animal and Plant Health and we had a very productive meeting in London at the beginning of the week. Representatives were present from many organizations, industry, academia, government, the devolved administrations, funders etc. We will be taking the outputs to more stakeholder groups over the next month in order to finalise the strategy as soon as possible.

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