Most of last week was spent in various universities hearing about some really great science. I met with and talked to students and staff involved in BBSRC funded work at the University of Cambridge. The meetings were held in The Sainsbury Laboratory which is situated in the Botanic Gardens and has been really thoughtfully designed – right down to the Ginkgos planted outside the entrance.
As ever it was a pleasure to meet students from the BBSRC DTP and hear about their research but myself and the other BBSRC attendees also heard from more established researchers whose research topics ranged from the exciting Open Plant synthetic biology project, which is joint with the John Innes Centre, to co-evolution of egg shape and colour between cuckoos and their hosts.
The Research Councils were represented by chief execs such as myself, or directors, at the opening of a new Advanced Composite Materials Facility at the University of Southampton by the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, Rt Hon Greg Clark. The visit also included exhibitions of research sponsored by all the Research Councils – much of it highly interdisciplinary. As well as our own funded research, I saw quite a lot of potential interest for the Agri-tech area – for example the potential for optoelectronics based sensors. The trip also involved a visit to Boldrewood Innovation Campus where there were all sorts of interesting engineering kit including some simulators (car, motorbike) and a prototype lab that would be every budding engineers dream. Students in there were making robots for a 2015 competition and innovative drones that could fly without using GPS – I am sure my engineer husband would have loved it.
The week finished at the University of Oxford, again with some presentations and discussions with senior academics, tours of the departments of plant sciences and chemistry and seeing work from BBSRC funded DTP students. The research was also incredibly varied and interdisciplinary – homing pigeon leadership hierarchies, lateral root development in Arabidopsis and post translational modifications of glucocerebrosidase were just a few of the research projects on display from the DTP students. I heard about plans for forestry genetics and genomics as well as projects to engineer nitrogen fixation in non-legumes.
All three visits were extremely well organised and demonstrated the excellence of the bioscience that we fund in particular and the strength of the UK research base in general. This was supported by the publication last week of the Nature Index 2014 which uses 68 journals, independently chosen by researchers as being of the highest quality as perceived by the researchers themselves.
Snapshot data from the Index are available under a Creative Commons licence at natureindex.com so researchers can examine the data in more detail. In terms of financial efficiency (natureindex output per dollar invested in R&D) the UK came second only to Switzerland in Europe and was ranked better than the USA or Canada globally. Other statistics also support that the UK punches above its weight scientifically and maximises the efficiency of every pound spent on research – with less than 1% of the world’s population, the UK generates 8% of the world’s scientific papers and has 16% of the most cited papers globally. In order to keep the UK at the forefront we must maintain our commitment to funding excellent research and ensure that the UK continues to see science as a driver for economic growth and societal impact. Hopefully the latter message will be reinforced when the impact examples from the REF are published at the end of the year!