Over the past couple weeks I have been able to focus a bit more on our stakeholders and collaborators in the Agritech and plant sectors. During the first week of January I made my first ever visit to the Oxford Farming Conference and I was very impressed. BBSRC held a fringe meeting highlighting some of the research we have invested in, how it is translated and the role of stakeholders in accelerating and maximising impact. The room was packed! I must congratulate our presenters who all kept to time and presented their work in a way that was both clear and impactful. I certainly had very good feedback on the session from people I spoke to over the next few days. It was nice to see that Tom Heap from BBC Countryfile was there and engaged – I am an avid fan of Countryfile and it quite leaves a hole in my Sunday evenings if it’s not on!
It was great to meet so many farmers and to see their enthusiasm and commitment. The mix of talks was very informative but the real plus for me was being able to meet the people that we are ultimately trying to help through the research we invest in. The Oxford Farming Conference Report for 2015 was launched at the meeting. The report is entitled ‘The Best British Farmers: What gives them the edge’ and can be downloaded from the Conference website – it makes interesting reading. From the BBSRC perspective there were some clear messages around agricultural R&D. The report summary makes it clear that improving efficiency at an industry level is directly related to expenditure in R&D which has fallen in real terms by about 6%p.a. over the past 20 years. There needs to be more effort to take strategic research and apply it to industry and within industry, facilitating knowledge exchange.
Engaging with stakeholders from all parts of society and industry sectors is important to BBSRC – so I was pleased to see a large amount of crossover and interchange of delegates between the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference (OFRC) which was held across the road. I am interested to explore how BBSRC and our research community can better engage with the ORFC in future years.
I also visited Kew Gardens to meet the director Richard Deverell and some of the research staff. BBSRC doesn’t invest in much research at Kew but there are areas of common interest especially with regard to public engagement around plant biology. It was great to have a whistle stop tour of the gardens and the research laboratories and I promised myself that I would come in the spring as a paying guest to walk round the grounds and see the exhibits. Kew, like the rest of us, has significant financial challenges – not least that it has to charge for entry whereas museums do not – but I am confident that the new strategy to be released this year will enable Kew to be sustainable going forward.
Sustainability is a challenge for all institutes – whether they are supported by the Research Councils or other funders. Going forward I think it will be important for the UK to consider more broadly what nationally important capabilities and resources the UK needs to maintain and how the institutes that perform that function are best funded.
As part of my internet wanderings I came across a project called OPAL (open air laboratories) which is a citizen science programme to foster engagement between the public and the natural world. BBSRC has funded some aspects of OPAL’s work such as the Tree Health Survey but in 2013 OPAL obtained a Big Lottery fund grant of £3M to roll out its work across the UK. It’s a really interesting website with lots of good stuff including how to run a BioBlitz, tree and hedgerow plant identification guides and lots of stuff for kids (big and small!)
Globally more and more citizen science sites are springing up – for example in the USA, NEON is a project to collect environmental data across the USA and it has a citizen science site, although this seems to be primarily for teachers. Citizen science can provide an important resource for agriculture as well as the environment as BBSRC and TSL showed with the Fraxinus Facebook game – it not only provides input but also a route for engagement and two-way collaboration and I hope it’s something we can use more effectively going forward in the UK for plant and animal health.