Tag Archives: applied science

Mind the gap – time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page

I have deliberately used the same title for this post as my 2017 Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology and if you were to run it through Turnitin™ you would find a very high percentage similarity indeed 🙂 I had originally planned for this post and my Editorial to appear simultaneously, but thanks to modern publishing practices, the January issue of the Annals of Applied Biology, hit the virtual newsstands in mid-December and put the kibosh on my cunning plan.


Once a year I am wheeled out to do a guest lecture to the final year agriculture undergraduates on the Global Food Production module here at Harper Adams.  I start off the lecture by reminiscing about when I was an agricultural zoology undergraduate student at the University of Leeds in 1975 and was introduced to the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), or as it was termed then, Integrated Pest Control.  I was very much taken by this idea and on my next visit home, approached my Uncle James, a farmer, and explained the concept to him and suggested that he might like to implement it on his farm.  To my surprise, he was not convinced by my arguments, and replied with words to the effect, “It all sounds rather tedious, and after all, I can do all my pest control much more easily using a tank mix, so why should I bother?”.  This attitude was, at the time widespread among the UK farming community and elsewhere despite the concept having been formally discussed in the scientific literature since the late 1950s and early 1960s (Stern et al., 1959; de Fluiter, 1962).  Despite the benefits of IPM being recognised and extolled IPM by researchers and agronomists for many years, take-up by growers has been much slower than expected (Kogan, 1998; Hammond et al., 2006). Resistance to the adoption of integrated pest management is not new, Benjamin Walsh writing in 1866 wrote

Let a man profess to have discovered some new patent powder pimperlimplimp, a single pinch of which being thrown into each corner of a field will kill every bug throughout its whole extent, and people will listen to him with attention and respect.  But tell them of any simple common-sense plan, based upon correct scientific principles, to check and keep within reasonable bounds the insect foes of the farmer, and they will laugh you to scorn”  Benjamin Walsh The Practical Entomologist

Why, if IPM is regarded as being of such paramount importance to sustainable crop production, the European Union for example passed a directive recently (2009/128/EC) requiring all member states to pass legislation to make sure that all professional growers at the very least adopt the principles of IPM, is its adoption so slow.  Hokkanen (2015) cites three main impediments to the adoption of IPM, science funding, political interference and economics.  As an applied entomologist I know from bitter experience, that there is a lack of willingness by the UK Research Councils to fund basic applied science i.e. grants to aid researchers to establish much-needed new economic thresholds are very unlikely to be funded.  Hokkanen (2015) also points out that whilst the political landscape now includes IPM, different governments have views, not necessarily based on science, about what are acceptable items for the IPM toolbox, genetically modified crops (GM) and neonicotinoid insecticides being just two such examples. Thirdly, as Hokkanen (2015) points out the ability of farmers to fully adopt IPM practices, is often out of their control, but is decided by market forces and social and political pressures, GM crops and neonicotinoids again serving to illustrate this point.

As Felicity Lawrence writing in the Guardian says “British farmers growing wheat typically treat each crop over its growing cycle with four fungicides, three herbicides, one insecticide and one chemical to control molluscs. They buy seed that has been precoated with chemicals against insects. They spray the land with weedkiller before planting, and again after.

They apply chemical growth regulators that change the balance of plant hormones to control the height and strength of the grain’s stem. They spray against aphids and mildew. And then they often spray again just before harvesting with the herbicide glyphosate to desiccate the crop, which saves them the energy costs of mechanical drying.

Most farmers around the world, whatever the crop, will turn to one of just six companies that dominate the market to buy all these agrochemicals and their seeds. The concentration of power over primary agriculture in such a small number of corporations, and their ability both to set prices and determine the varieties available, has already been a cause of concern among farmers. Yet by next year the competition is likely to shrink even further”.

Independent advice in the UK is not as easy to get as it once was.  The expected career outcome for my undergraduate course was either academia or to work as an advisor for the then, government funded, Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS).  ADAS was the research and advisory arm of the then Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and employed specialist advisers throughout the country to advise farmers and growers how to maximise their output.   ADAS became an agency in 1992, was privatised in 1997 and in December 2016 was taken over by RSK, a large environmental consultancy.  The first incarnation of ADAS was relatively well-staffed with truly independent advisors. The second incarnation, although still billed as independent, had far fewer offices and far fewer staff, so their traditional advisory role was largely taken over by private agronomists whose agendas and training are very varied.  This state of affairs is not unique to the UK.

As an example, this is from another of my correspondents who is also on the Editorial Board of Annals of Applied BiologyThanks for your message and interesting question.  You are correct that in the US the extension service is closely aligned with the land grant Universities.  It was the complete opposite in Australia and NZ (similar to the UK) where the government funded extension service had been cut years ago and the gap had been ‘filled’ by private consultants which were also often chemical sales representatives.

Even in the USA, traditionally very strong when it comes to entomology in universities, the situation is less than rosy as this email from another correspondent (of necessity anonymised) highlights:

“I am currently the only trained entomologist in any XX university with a position focused on commercial ornamental entomology despite nurseries in XX being our largest plant-based agricultural commodity. Between shipping out 75-80% of the nursery plants across a state or international border, thousands of cultivated varieties, several planting systems (protected and field grown), and the aesthetic thresholds with ornamental plants, I’m a bit too popular (couldn’t haven’t happened in high school when I could have used it). I don’t even have a PhD and my position is actually a regional Extension educator position versus specialist. Since we have no specialists for non-food crops, I often am asked to work off position description on other ornamental plant needs in landscapes as well. Not just entomology as this is an IPM position.  This level of demand has curtailed my ability to be involved with activities that would have been useful professionally (like publishing more and reviewing work of peers). No regrets about the new discoveries, adoption and impact of my work in many diverse areas but I will have less legacy in the published world.  

I’m retiring in less than three years. A little early but necessary as I’ve been fighting burn-out for years. And the university has taught me many times that they value my work less as a female (the stories I could tell). Women in STEM gets lots of verbiage but those of us working in these systems will tell you how far we have to go yet to be treated equitably. Perhaps they will value my work once I’m gone and people have nowhere to go. I have been fortunate to have had the privilege of excellent training and only hope that this country can maintain some of these bastions of entomology into the future”

Science is crucial to the development of IPM, be it understanding pest phenology, developing and evaluating biocontrol agents or obtaining a basic understanding of the biology and ecology of a particular pest (e.g. Webb et al., 2015; Dandurand & Knudsen, 2016; Karley et al., 2016; Rowley et al. 2016).  Basic science is important, but funding needs to be mainly allocated to more immediately applicable research than to the more academic end of the spectrum which is where it tends to go more often than not (Hokkanen, 2015).   I recently attended a conference organised by AgriNet, http://www.agri-net.net/ whose mission statement is “AGRI-net is an Agri-science Chemical Biology network which aims to stimulate the development and facilitate the translation of novel tools and technologies to key end-users in the Agri-sciences”, the title of which was  Bridging the gap between Physical sciences & Agri-sciences research.  Although the science presented was excellent it was hard to see how it could be translated to the relevant end-users in their lifetimes.

Don’t get me wrong, basic science is needed as there will be a time when the technology is available for it to be relevant.  As an example, Winer et al. (2001) convincingly demonstrated that planting spring wheat at extremely high densities (up to 600 seeds m2) in a grid pattern, significantly reduced weed density and significantly increased yield when compared with planting at conventional seed rates and in the traditional row pattern.  Fifteen years ago this may not have been very attractive to farmers as it would have meant modifying their already expensive machinery.  With the advent of precision farming this is perhaps now a viable strategy, but so far is little taken up by growers.  Is this a lack of communication from the scientists to the end-user or a reluctance to adapt new ways by the farmer?  I would suggest the former.

The recent State of Nature report (Hayhow et al., 2016) caused dismay amongst UK ecologists and raised the hackles of the UK farming community.  The data were very convincing and much of the decline in wildlife in agricultural systems was attributed to the intensification of agriculture post World War 2. The UK farming community reacted quickly and angrily (Midgely, 2016), pointing out that farming practices have changed greatly over the last half century and that the report was overlooking the many farmers who have willing engaged with the various environmental stewardship initiatives.  The debate was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that some trenchant exchanges on both sides of the fence are of a long-standing nature.  Although I have a great deal of sympathy for the conservation side of the argument I sometimes feel that the language used by what the farming press equally dismissively calls ‘green lobby’ does not help. Michael McCarthy for example, an author whom I greatly admire, is in his recent book, The Moth Snowstorm, is extremely scathing about the practices of farmers, whom he mockingly calls “Farmer Giles” (McCarthy, 2016)

Similarly, there has been for some time, a debate within the scientific community as to whether it is better to farm intensively to maximize yields while conserving and protecting natural habitats (land sparing), or to use wildlife-friendly farming methods (land sharing) that integrate biodiversity conservation with food production (e.g. Tscharntke et al., 2012; Bommarco et al., 2013; Fischer et al., 2014; Kremen, 2015).  Due, however, to the pressures imposed by academic institutions and state funding bodies, the scientists concerned publish in ‘high impact’ conservation journals unlikely to be read by agronomists let alone farmers.

Sue Hartley (2016) “…working in Malawi on a Christian Aid funded project on improving crop resilience to drought.  I thought I had the answer: farmers should stop growing maize and grow the much more drought tolerant millet instead.  Consternation amongst the farmers greeted that suggestion! “But, they exclaimed in horror, Dr Sue, we can’t we are married to maize!  Hopelessly naïve, I had neglected the wider cultural and socioeconomic context; I’d focussed on the physiology of the plants, my discipline, and not on the sociology of farmer behaviour, someone else’s discipline

There are ways to bridge the gap, although it may mean some scientists having to step outside their laboratories and comfort zones. A recent experiment in China where academic staff and their postgraduate students lived in farming communities and worked alongside local farmers resulted in significant increases in crop yields (Zhang et al., 2016).  Whilst not suggesting that all scientists involved in basic science with potential agricultural applications, adopt a similar approach, I would encourage them to spend some time speaking to farmers on their farms and not in workshops away from the agricultural environment.   Similarly, I would exhort ecologists with an interest in agriculture to either publish in journals more likely to be read by agronomists and farmers and not in journals that only their peers will read. Arguments in journals such as Biological Conservation, no matter how well presented or reasoned, reach a very limited audience of peers and undergraduates writing assignments. The people who make the decisions and grow our food do not read those journals. Failing that, in these days of ‘research impact’ it would make sense to take steps to summarise their findings in a more popular format such as the farming press. The workshops often mentioned in grant applications under the “pathways to impact” section will only have a limited reach and the proposed web sites, another favourite of the grant writer, unless extensively advertised and scrupulously kept up to date, again will remain largely unread.

Most importantly, use language that everyone can understand.  The farmer representing Innovate UK at the Agri-futures meeting was particularly scathing about the presentations, slickly and smoothly delivered by the obviously keen and excited scientists, remarking that most farmers would not know the word heterogeneity; keep it simple, avoid jargon, but don’t speak down to practitioners just because they don’t have the same vocabulary you do.   Emma Hamer the Senior Plant Health advisor for the National Farmers Union was just one of the many speakers from industry at the Advances in Integrated Pest Management Conference that I attended in November, who pointed out that many farmers were still unaware of exactly IPM was, even though they were practicing it to some extent.

There are agricultural scientists who do their best to step down from their ivory towers and try to make their work easily accessible.  Rothamsted Research for example, where the scientists are under immense pressure to publish in high impact journals, are doing their best to provide an effective extension service despite the swingeing cuts that have been made to their staff who work with whole organisms.  Their advocacy of the IPM concept via their app Croprotect is innovative and useful.  The UK of course is not alone in these types of ventures.  My Editorial sparked this response via email:  “I read with interest your editorial in the Annals of Applied Biology.  Our research group works strongly with State Government to convert our research into practical tools for fire management, but we struggle at the interface because each agency things that it is the responsibility of the other to do the extension work!  A better example comes from my colleagues in the crop sciences who have a very workable model in the southern hemisphere (see http://www.apen.org.au/extensionnet ).” On the other hand, we have scientists who extol the virtues of extension but publish in journals that are non-accessible to many academics and certainly beyond the ken of agronomists and farmers (Kremen, 2015).  Important commentaries on pollinators aimed at farmers and politicians (Dicks et al., 2016) are too often hidden behind ‘high impact’ paywalls and if not revealed by helpful bloggers such as Jeff Ollerton, would remain hidden away from the very people who need to know.  Other bloggers such as Manu Saunders are also on the case, debunking and/or publicising the debates surrounding sustainable agriculture, but this is not enough.  Scientists who put themselves forward as working in the agricultural sciences need to pay more heed to the ways in which farmers work, understand the farming year* and actually talk to farmers whilst in their own environment.  Perhaps not so much as being on the same page but standing in the same field.


Pleased to see that a Wordle analysis of this post puts farmers centre stage.



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Dandurand, L.M. & Knudsen, G.R. (2016) Effect of the trap crop Solanum sisymbriifolium and two biocontrol fungi on reproduction of the potato cyst nematode, Globodera pallida. Annals of Applied Biology, 169, 180-189

De Fluiter, H.J. (1962) Integrated control of pests in orchards. Entomophaga, 7, 199-206.

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