Tag Archives: BBSRC STARS programme

CROPSS – Inspiring biology students to consider careers in crop protection

A couple of years ago, the BBSRC decided to scrap one of their most successful and inclusive PhD training awards, the iCASE.    In their own words, BBSRC will no longer operate an annual competition for industrial CASE (iCASE) studentships, instead allocating the majority of these studentships to the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) for awarding alongside their standard studentships.    At one fell stroke the BBSRC reduced the diversity of their PhD portfolio by a significant amount and also dealt a huge blow to those of us working in crop protection, at a time when food security and the need to feed the world is of paramount importance.  Later that year the BBSRC, possibly in response to those of us who kicked up a public fuss about the loss of the iCASE scheme came up with a very inadequately funded scheme called STARS aimed at getting undergraduates interested in some of the vulnerable skill sets that the BBSRC by their actions had made even more vulnerable.  Despite the paltry amount of money available I felt that I had to apply, if only because having complained about lack of funding it would show lack of commitment to the cause 🙂  I duly applied putting forward an application to run a one week crop protection summer school for fifteen students a year for three years.  I was successful and last week we ran our first CROPSS Summer School here at Harper Adams University.  We particularly targeted first and second year undergraduates doing biology and ecology courses at other universities with little or no agricultural content in their degrees.  Our participants came from the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool and Swansea, and apart from one student who came from a farming family, they had no previous experience of agriculture, let alone crop protection.

The Summer School started on Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years 🙂  This needs to be reiterated again and again and as loudly as possible. We then had an excellent dinner and I took them all to the bar where I cruelly subjected them to a Pub Quiz, all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then dog breeds (about 75% correct), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (40% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this  🙂

The week was divided up between agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology, with a mixture of lectures, field work and laboratory work.  In the evening we had guest speakers from the different crop protection sectors, from the agrichemical industry through to government, our last speaker being the Chief Plant Health Officer, Nicola Spence.  The external speakers had been asked to explain how they had ended up in their current positions and to talk about careers in those areas.  I was very impressed with the willingness of the students to engage with the speakers and the questions they asked were extremely discerning.

We were very lucky to be blessed with excellent weather and the harper Adams University Catering Department came in for very high praise indeed J  apparently our catering is much better than at the universities represented by our delegates.

As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words…..

Catching insects in the Natural England plots

Sorting pitfall traps catches

Plant pathology in the brand new labs

Heading off with John Reade to sample weeds

Enjoying the sun and spotting weeds

Simon Woods from the Engineering Department explaining the fine points of knap sack sprayers

Andy Cherrill extolling the joys of motorised suction sampling

Enjoying the bar with one of the guest speakers, Neal Ward

All in all, we all had a good time, and if you don’t believe me here are some of the responses from the student feedback

The students were great, enthusiastic, engaged and we really enjoyed the course and are very much looking forward to seeing a new CROPSS cohort next year.

Finally, for those of you interested, here is the timetable of the week:

 

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Underinvestment is not going to produce STARS – BBSRC take note

Earlier this year, the BBSRC at the stroke of a pen, deprived several strategically important and vulnerable research skills and capabilities areas in biosciences of approximately £9 000 000 per annum  by funneling iCASE funding to a number of universities already awash in cash and with little or no interest in vulnerable skill-sets. Now, the BBSRC in a feeble attempt to remedy this seriously misjudged action, has announced their new STARS programme. I quote from their website

http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/studentships/stars/

“Our STARS programme aims to support the development of strategically important and vulnerable research skills and capabilities in the biosciences. Awards are available to develop postgraduate-level training in areas of significant need for clearly defined academic and industrial sectors”

 

Reasons for such additional support include, but are not restricted to:

A lack of training and/or capability in specific areas, or a need to up-skill individuals within a specific area

An identified need to attract researchers into the area

A need to build capacity in a new or emerging research area

A need to transfer technical and commercially relevant skills to/from industry

 

Delivery of training may be achieved by one or more of the following methods:

Research Experience Placements Summer research placements for undergraduate students in the middle years of their studies, to attract them into further research in a strategically important or vulnerable research area

Skills schools in strategically important and vulnerable research areas, including: Development of new skills schools

Expansion of existing institutional/regional activities for national reach

Expansion of existing activities for participation by BBSRC-funded researchers at any level (PhD, postdoctoral researcher, research fellow, research leader)

Development and delivery of training resources through other mechanisms, such as development of e-learning modules or other online resources

 

Funding

Up to £250k is available per year to support training activities through the STARS programme. There will be three calls per year. Awards are flexible and may be used to support strategic and vulnerable skills for a short, discrete period or for up to three years of recurrent funding.

According to the web site and after an incredulous email by me to the BBSRC, it turns out that this magnificent windfall is expected to fund 30 projects – do the sums and this averages out at just over a princely £8000 each! My colleagues and I felt (and still feel) that this really does not show a serious commitment by the BBSRC to vulnerable research skills and capabilities. Rather, it shows complete disdain and contempt for the areas that they claim to be concerned about;

“We welcome applications for support of any research capability within our remit, but particularly those highlighted in the Review of Vulnerable Skills and Capabilities, published in January 2015 (see downloads) and especially in relation to capabilities within the following areas:

Maths, statistics and computational biology

Physiology and pathology of plants, animals and microbes

Agriculture and food security”

 

Beggars, however, cannot be choosers and so my colleagues and I duly downloaded an application form and submitted an application to run a one-week summer school in crop protection (entomology, plant pathology, plant nematology and weed science) for three years for 15 undergraduate students per year. Notwithstanding the small sums of money available, the form required inputting a disproportionate  amount of information; asked for a business plan and detailed information, concerning in the case of a taught summer school, details of lecture content and delivery, and financial support or other from interested parties and the institution providing the service. In terms of person-hours the delivery of such a course far outweighs the paltry sum of money available; in fact the time taken to put together the application itself, if costed at FEC (full economic costs), would also eat substantially into the monies potentially available. I could borrow more from my bank as a personal loan with considerably more ease, less paperwork and probably with a considerably greater chance of success.

BBSRC you cannot be serious!

Dad

Post script

In case anyone wonders why I have chosen to illustrate this post with a photograph of a somewhat sceptical looking elderly gentleman, let me explain. The picture shows my late father, Robert Ikin Leather (1924-2007) who is a perfect example of one of the vulnerable skills set that our proposed summer school would highlight and attempt to remedy. He was a traditional agricultural plant pathologist who could go out into the field, recognise symptoms and diagnose diseases, as well as identifying them in the laboratory and conducting field research. He is no longer with us, as are the majority of people who shared his skills. Plant pathology in the UK is in dire straits as are weed science, plant nematology and to a slightly lesser extent, entomology. To reiterate my earlier point underinvestment in training and research in these areas is not the way to solve the problem.

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