The start of a year is often a time for reflection on the previous 12 months and a look forward to the year ahead.

Shortly before the Christmas break a request came through at short notice inviting me to meet with the Minister for Science and senior colleagues from the Ugandan government. The first surprise was that diaries worked. I was not sure what to expect as while we support some projects with links to Uganda, especially in the areas of animal and plant disease, they have not traditionally been a partner. And here was the second surprise – the 5-strong delegation were keen to learn more about UKRI, more about BBSRC and particularly our interests in the bioeconomy, which, with a different focus, they see as a major opportunity for development in Uganda. They were also very interested to understand how we fund research and innovation, as they are in the early stages of establishing their new Ministry. I very much enjoyed the discussions and at the end of the meeting had a huge sense of fulfilment; if I had in any way helped shape their thinking it was a meeting well worth the time and a satisfying, if surprising, way to round off a busy year.

At the beginning of the year, many of us become more aware of what we eat: whether we are looking back with a mixture of pleasure and guilt on December’s excesses, or trying a different way of eating in the New Year – more on the latter in a future blog

2019 began in earnest at the Oxford Farming Conference, with much lively discussion on the future of food production in the UK. This year’s theme was “A World of Opportunity”, with many sessions highlighting the role of research and innovation, credit for which goes to the leadership and enthusiasm of the OFC Chair – Tom Allen-Stevens.

Sir Mark Walport delivered an excellent Science Lecture, providing an overview of how science has, historically, transformed farming and how it is set to change the landscape once again. His speech highlighted several programmes led by UKRI, including many excellent examples of BBSRC research, the Transforming Food Production challenge and the Centres for Agricultural Innovation.

Following the Science Lecture, I had the pleasure of showing Mark and HRH The Princess Royal around BBSRC’s Innovation Hub, which showcased projects from BBSRC and the Global Food Security programme, including the potential role of farm waste in a circular economy. Having brushed up on their royal etiquette, the researchers at the Hub had some excellent discussions with Her Royal Highness and did a brilliant job of showcasing the importance of agricultural research. It was also a real pleasure to meet Julie Borlaug, grand-daughter of Norman Borlaug, the pioneer of the Green revolution, and to hear more about Julie’s work supporting the 4th revolution in agriculture.

An observation in the Science Lecture that struck a chord with many in the audience was that farmers are natural innovators, constantly trying new approaches on farm. These comments were echoed in Friday’s “A World of Innovation” session, where practitioners and researchers (including the John Innes Centre’s Cristobal Uauy and Queen’s University Belfast’s Brendan Gilmore) discussed technological advances in farming and the political, practical and social barriers to their uptake on farms. I was interested to read Daniel Kindred of ADAS’ commentary on the conference, which identified some of the limitations of the more traditional models for disseminating the outcomes of agricultural research and its translation into practice. Many initiatives, example. AHDB Monitor farms and Innovative Farmers, seek to promote on-farm trials, peer-to-peer learning and interactions between researchers and farmers. BBSRC’s strategically-funded institutes have a long history of working directly with producers, a recent example being Rothamsted’s FarmINN programme. Given the plethora of initiatives, but also the fragmented nature of the sector, I think there is a real opportunity to connect and coordinate programmes of this type to maximise the chances for interaction between researchers and practioners, the co-design of research and to facilitate the sharing of best practice. I really hope we see progress made towards this in the year ahead.

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