BBSRC colleagues and I have just spent a very intense but extremely interesting week in the USA. We had two main aims – to meet some world-leading US-based bioscientists to understand where they saw the direction of their science over the next 5-10 years and to hold discussions with major US federal research funders on current and future strategy and opportunities for closer partnership. Both sets of discussions will inform our spending review preparations and the next iteration of our strategic plan. They also provided some useful insights into our current strategy and a perspective from the USA on where the strengths of UK bioscience lie.

On the Sunday Amanda Collis and I went with Jim Olds, from National Science Foundation (NSF), to see one of the NEON towers in the foothills of the Shenandoah National Park. The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a truly visionary project building a national ecological observatory platform across all main ecosystems in the USA. This network is of relevance to the ‘Internet of Agri-things’ that we are planning as part of the animal and health strategy in the UK but is clearly larger and somewhat different in scope. We were very grateful to Andrea Thorpe and Ty Lindberg from NEON who took time out to show us the facilities and describe the operation of the sensor systems.

On Monday we visited the National Institutes of Health campus with Melanie Welham and, amongst others, we met Jon Lorsch, who is the Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and several of his divisional heads. We also caught up with Phil Bourne, who has been appointed as the Associate Director for Data Science, reporting directly to the Head of NIH, Francis Collins, and driving the NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative. They are clearly facing the same Big Data challenges as ourselves and we discussed the potential for a brain storming session across funders to explore opportunities for working together on some of these issues. Most of our work is more aligned to that funded by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the NSF and so it was important for us to meet representatives from both departments, which we did during our time in Washington DC.

What emerged from our discussions with Sonny Ramaswamy, the Director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and his colleagues was, perhaps reassuringly, that many of the areas that were priorities for NIFA were also priorities for BBSRC. One of these areas was animal health and BBSRC and NIFA co-hosted a workshop on the Tuesday on this topic, with representatives from both UK and USA, to discuss opportunities for collaboration in animal health and welfare.

BBSRC already has a lead agency agreement with NSF and has had one round of funding completed with a second in progress. Therefore, it was good to meet with senior NSF officials and again discuss the areas of science that they see as important going forward.

Before heading to New York we visited the Janelia Farm Research Campus and were completely blown away by the research and technology there. UK researchers may be interested to know that they can access the Janelia Farm Advanced Imaging Centre for free if their research proposal is approved!

Arriving at our New York hotel late on Wednesday night I wasn’t happy to find emergency road repairs being carried out directly under my window – luckily the very kind man at the desk managed to find a room much higher up and on the other side (although one could still hear muted drilling in the distance but not enough to interfere with sleep). We had various meetings with Animal Health and Pharmaceutical companies to explore opportunities for the UK and areas where pre-competitive activities would be beneficial, as well as the New York Academy of Sciences to discuss a co-sponsored meeting to be hosted in the UK next year on the microbiome.

We took the train from New York to Boston, which I had not done before, it is a very scenic trip up through Rhode Island and I would thoroughly recommend it. It also provided some much needed ‘down time’ to absorb what we had seen and heard. Amongst the take home messages from me were:

  • That there are real opportunities to build on what the USA has done with NEON for the animal and plant health strategy including the potential to develop common standards for data sharing and interoperability
  • The UK has built an impressive capability in synthetic biology, which is recognised in the USA, and will be important in other areas of our portfolio such as bioprocessing and better understanding of the microbiome and its role in health
  • Many common priorities existed not just on the Big Data front but also in antimicrobial resistance, vaccine technology, animal and plant disease, new genome editing technologies such as CRISPR and grand challenges around wheat production and nitrogen utilisation

The second half of the trip in Boston reinforced some of these findings but also provided a lot of food for thought about how the innovation ecosystem works there and ideas to drive UK innovation – more of which next week!

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