A theme woven through my second week as interim CE has been the opportunity that the Global Challenges Research Fund, announced by the Government in the Spending Review in November 2015 and confirmed in our allocations last week, brings to the bioscience research and innovation community.
The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) seeks to leverage the excellence of the UK’s research base to tackle problems faced by developing countries, from health and agriculture, through to energy and conflict resolution, challenges which very much align with UN sustainable development goals.
The GCRF was a key topic for discussion at a roundtable meeting I attended hosted by Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a follow-up to an earlier dinner discussion with Bill Gates. Discussions were wide-ranging and explored opportunities for working in partnership. While many in our research community may not have considered how their research could benefit communities in developing countries I would like to encourage you all to give this consideration as we anticipate a series of thematic calls across the BBSRC remit over the spending review period – and interdisciplinary opportunities across the Research Councils more widely.
In the context of global challenges in health and agriculture, the threats posed by emerging infectious diseases are considerable. Over the past year we have seen many headlines relating to viral zoonotic diseases, especially Ebola and Zika. While threats to public health from infections are of course of great concern, there are many threats to plant health that could have significant impact on food supplies across the globe, yet do not make the headlines.
The risks posed by such pathogens were highlighted to me at the ‘Tackling emerging fungal threats to animal health, food security and ecosystem resilience’ discussion meeting held at the Royal Society last week. I listened to a series of excellent talks on the emergence of a range of fungal pathogens, from White-nose syndrome, which is leading to widespread declines in bat populations, through to the emergence of snake fungal disease. Most concerning, however, are the threats that fungal pathogens pose to some of our staple food crops. Sarah Gurr (University of Exeter) highlighted the increasing severity and scale of fungal diseases threatening crops, the shift towards the poles of fungal pathogens and predictions of worldwide saturation by the mid-21st Century. While climate change is a key driver, Sophien Kamoun (TSL, Norwich) described the fact that the genome of the oomycetes Phytopthora infestans (responsible for late blight of potatoes) demonstrates a two-speed architecture, with virulence genes undergoing faster adaptation and evolution. There is clearly a lot of fascinating biology underpinning the emergence of fungal pathogens and the application of this knowledge will be key to combatting these threats.
If, like me, you have completed your annual ResearchFish return in the past few weeks I want to thank you. The Research Councils rely on being able to capture the outputs and outcomes of the research we invest in and I am pleased to report we have had an excellent response this year! We appreciate that there are always improvements that can be made to both systems and processes so we are listening to feedback from communities across the Research Councils.