BBSRC provides strategic funding to eight institutes that have long-term research programmes and national capabilities that underpin important sectors of the UK economy – including agriculture, food and drink and pharmaceuticals. Last week I had a very productive visit to one of the institutes – IBERS which is part of Aberystwyth University. As well as getting a review of the Institute Strategic Programmes that we fund there, I also spoke to a number of researchers in areas as diverse as ruminant microbiota and biofuels. I hadn’t realised that the Institute was so heavily involved in teaching undergraduates as well as postgraduates and was pleased to see how successfully integrated it has become with the University. I was extremely impressed with the National Plant Phenomics Centre and its capacity for automated imaging and measurement of a range of different plant sizes. The ability to measure both below and above ground phenotypes is impressive. The Institute is also home to the Beacon Biorefining Centre of Excellence which is a partnership between Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea Universities. [...]
I attended (briefly) my last Appointments Board. One of the – fortunately electronic – papers had no fewer than 1,223 pages, which might well be taken as illustrative of the hard work of our Appointments Board, and the care with which potential candidates for our Boards and Committees are appointed. I also enjoyed a very useful discussion of how responsible capitalism can drive the real (as opposed to funny-money-based) economy.
However, the main external visit of last week, accompanied by RCUK Chair and AHRC Chief Executive Rick Rylance and my successor Prof Jackie Hunter, was to the Norwich Research Park. As well as visiting the three Institutes there that enjoy BBSRC’s strategic support, we toured the new Centrum building that is presently going up. From its roof, it became clear quite how large an operation this is! There is a great deal of difference between looking at a plan with Monopoly-sized houses on it and seeing a landscape that for as far as one can see will come to be populated by substantial incubators and fully fledged businesses. The potential is simply huge! [...]
RCUK Chief Executives and others had a very good meeting with a high-level French delegation, including François Houllier, President of INRA. I also had a very useful one with the Commercial Farmers Group. [...]
Lithuania holds the next presidency of the EU, and we had a very useful meeting with Minister Counsellor Sigitas Mitkus at the Lithuanian Embassy in London. I had visited Lithuania in 1989 as part of a Royal Society-sponsored trip to the former Soviet Union, where I set up my longstanding collaboration with Prof Arseny Kaprelyants. Lithuania has the fastest growing economy in Europe, and we anticipate further useful links.
A now-published report to which I contributed on e‐Science and e‐Infrastructure needs of UK Life Sciences industries is available, and I had a useful meeting with the coauthors and others to take forward our thinking on implementation strategies. Another member of the e-infrastructure leadership Council is Tony Hey, who pointed me to some interesting blog posts of his on Open Access. [...]
Much of last week was occupied by my attendance at an eponymous conference in Dundee that we helped sponsor on plant root biology, under the auspices of the International Society for Root Research. I co-chaired one of the sessions and gave a short talk based on a couple of review articles and calculations.
There were a huge number of highlights, not least in meeting so many of this community, but probably the outstanding talk was the opening keynote by Jonathan Lynch, whose wide-ranging review covered everything from molecular genetics and very high-tech measurements of root morphology at different scales (e.g. using laser ablation tomography as the best method for measuring aerenchyma) to the substantial yield improvements that these methods, and some careful thinking, plant breeding and agronomy, were having in a variety of African countries. Effective breeding increases both shallow (and spreading) roots for improved phosphorus uptake and deep roots for improved nitrogen use efficiency and drought tolerance. Roots should be ‘steep, deep and cheap’, said Lynch. I also much enjoyed keynote presentations by Malcom Bennett and Michelle Watt, both vertically integrating quite fundamental molecular knowledge with downstream physiological properties (with the latter showing improvements in water acquisition by deep roots, with 10cm of increased depth in no-till agriculture in Australia translating to 0.5 tonnes per ha increase in wheat grain yields). Overall I learnt a lot about the potential and research needs of this core element of Global Food Security. [...]