One of the best bits of my job is visiting researchers across the range of biosciences in the BBSRC portfolio. This week I went to Harper Adams University in Shropshire and had a fabulous time seeing the range of basic and applied research that they are undertaking. There is no doubt of the need for innovation in the agri-food chain to drive productivity, not just in the sector but for the UK. This was emphasised at the launch of Defra’s consultation on a 25 year strategy for food and farming by the Minister, George Eustice MP. Harper Adams is very well placed to be part of driving that innovation.

As well as visiting the livestock areas where innovations in diets for cows and pigs are being studied, I saw the latest in octocopter drones, unmanned vehicles and anaerobic digesters for schools and institutions. I also visited field trials of a number of different crops including cultivated and wild types of lettuce where students were spending the summer learning more about agricultural research.

The work ongoing there provides some really good examples of interactions between academia and industry that arose out of BBSRC Research and Technology Industry Clubs and highlights the need for close collaboration between industry and academia to allow experimental results to be rapidly translated. The Jean Jackson entomology centre and the agricultural engineering centre were examples of new facilities which were really impressive. Their website is very comprehensive and also has some really good guides to careers in agriculture.

Whilst there I had discussions with both the Vice Chancellor, David Llewellyn and Professor Simon Leather on the topic of iCASE – BBSRC announced earlier this year that we would not be running the annual competition for iCASE studentships, instead allocating the majority of these studentships to BBSRC DTPs for allocation alongside their standard studentships.

The removal of the scheme was of particular concern in our discussions. Harper Adams have had six iCASE students with three of these being in Simon’s group.

It may be a nice distinction but we haven’t removed the iCASE studentships – we have just allocated them to companies and existing DTPs. In fact more than 80% iCASE students already went to DTP institutions. The administrative burden for the iCASE scheme as previously operated was large and disproportionate for the 20% of studentships going outside the DTPs. BBSRC has received administration budget cuts which has given us the opportunity, as well as the necessity, to think about how to do things more efficiently – always to ensure that we deliver the greatest possible investment to the research base.

I discussed some possible solutions with the Harper Adams team, including the expectation from BBSRC that existing DTPs will work more flexibly with partners and also that companies should engage with institutions like Harper Adams. I also encouraged them, as I would all parts of our community, to also try to reach out more to other institutions. What we at BBSRC are doing is to try to maintain the number of students we fund but with tightening budgets we have to be more efficient administratively.

On the plant health side, the past few weeks has seen the publication of some BBSRC-funded studies to increase disease resistance in crops. Work at East Malling Research has shown that the more resistance genes a plant has to the fungus, Verticulium wilt, the more the plants resistance to wilt is increased in cultivated strawberries. This information can be used by breeders to breed new strains with greater resistance to this pathogen which currently can only be combatted by a single chemical. This pathogen is also an important disease in other crops.

As with animal health, technology is also playing its part in generating plants that are resistance to pests or disease although the results in the lab don’t always translate to the field in the same way as results in the biomedical lab don’t always translate to benefit in clinical trials in patients. This was true for studies of GM wheat carried out at Rothamsted in 2012/13. The wheat expressed aphid alarm pheromones which deterred the pests in the lab but this wasn’t the case in the field and the reasons for this are being closely examined. One result that did translate was the introduction of genes into Camelina plants to enable them to make nutritious omega-3 fatty acids. Given the large number of wild fish which are caught to supply farmed fish with this essential nutrient, this could be a first step to producing these acids in a sustainable way.

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