Tag Archives: BBSRC

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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When did research diversity stop being a good thing? Another threat to UK applied agricultural sciences

If, as is well documented, lack of diversity in cropping systems is bad for agricultural production (Johnson et al, 2006: Iverson et al., 2014), then those running the BBSRC should ask themselves why it is a good idea to reduce the number of UK universities they fund that are capable of first class work in the agricultural sciences, particularly crop protection.

Monoculture

http://heckeranddecker.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/feeding-the-next-city/

 

Normally at this time of year I am desperately putting the finishing touches to a couple of applications for BBSRC Industrial CASE studentships (iCASE).   In past years, at the beginning of May, those of us in the majority of UK universities without access to Doctoral Training Partnership funding, make our way to the BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship page to check when the closing date for applications are.  Imagine my shock to find that “this inclusive, very successful and effective programme  appears to have been hi-jacked by the fat cats of the UK university sector.  Yet another example of the “haves” getting more at the expense of the “have-nots”.

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.  

“The decision to cease the annual iCASE competition for individual studentship projects was taken for a number of strategic and operational reasons, primarily in recognition that the cohort-based approach, as exemplified by the DTPs, provides the gold standard in modern bioscience training, and one which BBSRC was keen to ensure all our funded students had the opportunity to take advantage of”

A more cynical reading of this is ‘it saves the BBSRC administrative time and the costs associated with having to have the applications reviewed by the Training Awards Committee’.   I also take exception to the implication that the only universities in the UK that have a cohort-based training approach are those in receipt of a DTP.  At Harper Adams University we have a well-established cohort-based doctoral training system.  I would be very surprised indeed if we are unique in this aspect of our PhD training amongst the other 100 UK universities outwith the BBSRC DTP programme.

The BBSRC web site goes on to stare “In addition, it was agreed that devolving responsibility for the recruitment and selection of students and collaborators to the DTP partner organisations (of which there are in excess of 45 within 12 partnerships across the UK higher education and public sector research sectors) would improve links between them and local companies, and increase the ability of institutions to act quickly and agilely in allocating projects to these companies, without the delays associated with a large national competition.”

Having moved from a university with a BBSRC Doctoral Training programme and seeing the difficulty and lack of willingness that staff in the other Departments within the School had in finding industrial partners I lack confidence in the ability of such departments to improve links.  As applied, whole organism ecologists/biologists, my former colleagues and I, benefitted immensely from our more molecular-based colleagues’ lack of real industrial contacts and were able to make good use of their unused CASE allocations.  The named grant holder of the DTP grant at the time, told me during a coffee break at a BBSRC Training Awards Committee meeting that he felt the whole CASE scheme was a waste of money.

The iCASE scheme was an opportunity for first class researchers from DTP excluded universities and from ‘Cinderella’ disciplines, e.g. entomology, integrated pest management, non-molecular plant sciences, such as plant pathology, plant nematology, weed science and forestry, which are incidentally recognised by the BBSRC and other learned bodies as being nationally vulnerable ‘skill sets’ to obtain funding that they would otherwise not have access to.  It is a sad fact of life that the universities that hold BBSRC DTP grants long ago decided that possessors of the above vulnerable skill sets did not publish in high enough impact journals and either made them redundant or did not replace them when they retired.

The decision by the BBSRC to further disenfranchise those many excellent applied agricultural scientists is perverse and much to the detriment of UK agriculture.  Given the growing need for sustainable farming systems worldwide it is hard to understand or justify the thought processes that led to this very ill-judged decision.

Ironically it is not just those of us in universities without BBSRC DTP provision that found the removal of the iCASE scheme bothersome.  A day or so after my discovery of the death of iCASE I received an email from a friend of mine at another UK university which is part of a DTP.

 “On a separate issue – no doubt you’ll have registered BBSRC removing the iCASE fund.  Allegedly we will now absorb more projects into our regional  “Doctoral Training Partnership”, but as these are only 2.5 years  for the main project (after all the associated training) it doesn’t always lend itself to the same sorts of projects as iCASE”

And finally, just to highlight the vulnerable skills-sets issue that the BBSRC seems determined to worsen.  I am, as some of you may know, Editor-in-Chief of the Annals of Applied Biology.  I recently received this email from one of my Editorial Board, a whole organism plant pathologist with field experience.

“Dear Simon

 I think that the time has come for me to step down from the editorial board of the Annals of Applied Biology.  I have been doing this for fourteen or fifteen years and I am due to retire from my current post in the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute in the next few months.

 It has been a privilege, and at most times, highly enjoyable to be part of the editorial board of Annals which is a really good journal.  In a highly competitive world AAB has maintained and indeed increased its reputation.  The standard of papers published is very high and the range of papers received from across the globe is sometimes astonishing.  It has certainly been frustrating at times identifying suitable referees for papers, and as research scientists seem to be under more and more pressure of time it is easy to understand why they are often reluctant to take on extra duties.  However peer review is at the very centre of how science works so it is important that everyone takes their responsibility seriously.

 I would love to be able to recommend a replacement but just now plant pathologists, certainly in the UK, are very thin on the ground.”

I contacted the President of the British Society of Plant Pathologists to see if he could offer me any suitable suggestions for a mid-career plant pathologist with field experience.  Sadly, the majority of  UK Plant Pathologists in the right age range with suitable publishing experience, are molecular biologists.  I eventually filled the gap, but had to appoint a Plant Pathologist from a US university, where happily, universities still recognise the need for field and whole organism plant pathologists and their importance in ensuring global food security; something that most research intensive UK universities and the BBSRC seem to have forgotten.

References

Iverson, A. L., Makin, L. E., Ennis, K. K., Gonthier, D. J., Connor-Barrie, B. T., Remfret, J. L., Cardinale, B. J. &Perfecto, I. (2014). Do polycultures promote win-win or trade-offs in agricultural ecosystem services?  A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology 51: 1593-1602.

Johnson, M. T. J., Lajeunesse, M. J. &Agrawal, A. A. (2006). Additive and interactive effects of plant genotypic diversity on arthropod communities and plant fitness. Ecology Letters 9: 24-34.

 

Post script

As I knew we were expecting a visit from Jackie Hunter the Chief Executive of the BBSRC, I deliberately held back posting this until I had had a chance to ask her directly about the demise of the iCASE scheme. Jackie was very willing to speak to me about this issue.  The main reason for the removal of the scheme appeared to be the costs of administration and of reviewing the proposals. She assured me that the interests of people like me had been taken into account by giving more money to the ten companies  which hold grants in their own right and also by expecting greater flexibility from the existing University DTP grant holders, by which I took to mean that they would be encouraged to collaborate with the ‘have-nots’. This may seem laudable were it not for two facts; of the ten industrial DTP holders, five are pharmaceutical companies holding just under half of the grants and the academic DTP grant holders are greatly lacking in agricultural expertise. I also suspect, given the shortage of available PhD studentships in comparison with staff numbers within most university departments, that a big stick will be needed to encourage any cross-fertilization with non-DTP holders. I will, however, wait and see if Jackie’s optimism is well-founded, although I will not be holding my breath 😉

Post post script

 The importance of diversification in research funding is not just a hobby-horse of mine.  See for example, this excellent post by Stephen Heard writing on why it is a bad strategy to centralise research funding.

 

 

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How do we save UK plant sciences?

At the beginning of this year (2014) the UK Plant Sciences Federation published an important report about the crisis facing plant sciences in the UK. This was not the first report of this type, for example in 2009 the BBSRC which ironically, is together with HEFCE perhaps one of the main culprits that caused the crisis in the first place, produced a report on vulnerable bioscience research skills, in which among others, they highlighted the vulnerability of plant sciences. The British Society for Plant Pathology produced a similarly gloomy report in 2012. All three reports basically said that UK plant sciences are in danger of extinction unless something is done sooner, rather than later.

Lawn dead 2014

To explain why I, an entomologist, am writing about this, I should explain that plant sciences encompasses plant pathology, plant nematology, plant entomology and pest management as well as agriculture, botany, horticulture, plant breeding etc.

In response to these findings the UKPSF set up four working groups, one of which, the Training and Skills Working Group, I was asked to chair. As if I hadn’t enough work to do already, I agreed.

Our Terms of Reference are:

To develop an implementation plan for the UKPSF and plant science community, outlining clearly defined actions and associated time scales. The plan should contain:

  • One or two short-term actions (achievable within six months to one year).
  • One to three medium to long-term actions (achievable within one to five years).

For each action the working group should specify realistic:

  • Mechanism(s).
  • Responsibility/responsibilities.
  • Timescale(s).
  • Rationale

The working group consists of

Simon Leather Professor of Entomology, Harper Adams University (Chair)

Mary Berry Curriculum Leader for Science, Woodlands Academy

Sarah Blackford Head of Education & Public Affairs, Society for Experimental Biology

Gary Foster Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, University of Bristol; President-Elect, British Society of Plant Pathology

Alistair Griffiths Director of Science, Royal Horticultural Society

Jo Hepworth Postdoctoral Researcher, John Innes Centre

Jon Heuch Owner and Director, Duramen Consulting Ltd (Chartered Foresters and Arboricultural Consultants); Trustee/Director, Arboricultural Association

Emma Kelson Training Officer, Society of Biology (Minute Secretary)

Celia Knight Independent educational consultant (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Charles Lane Consultant Plant Pathologist, Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera)

Jonathan Mitchley Lecturer in Plant Community Ecology, University of Reading; Senior Botanist, RSK Group Ltd

Ginny Page Director, Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Dawn Sanders Docent/Associate Professor, Gothenburg University; Gardens for Learning

Phil Smith Coordinator, Teacher Scientist Network (TSN)

Mimi Tanimoto Executive Officer, UKPSF (Coordinator)

Eleanor Walton PhD Student, University of York

So a fairly wide range of interests and hopefully representative of the plant science community.

I began by asking each member of the group to highlight their greatest concern about plant science training and skills: In no particular order these were our thoughts and concerns

  • we seem to have lost people who can identify things.
  • what do we understand plant science to be, what plant scientists do and what are the skills and opportunities for the future? These need to be understood to communicate professions to young people.
  • the perception that plants are boring. There is a lack of general respect for plant scientists and this needs to be tackled to attract young people into the sector.
  • Even within the academic world, there is a lack of respect for plant scientists, and this stems from a wider society perspective. Plant scientists are underappreciated at all levels.
  • lack of curriculum knowledge at lower level e.g. NVQs.
  • Government does not see plant science as connected with culture. There is big strength in relation to food production but we are failing to explain the wealth of ecosystems services that plants give us. Fusing technology with functionality and health and wellbeing will allow people to understand that plant science is worthwhile and valuable.
  • lack of funding: securing more funding for plant science will entail getting greater public support and more people interested in plants. Increasing awareness of plant science in schools will therefore allow more of a cultural change.
  • lack of trained people within schools to deliver effective plant science education. Making teachers confident and well equipped to teach plant science is a challenge. Few biology teachers in schools have a plant science background. Biology content of the secondary school curriculum is fractured and does not tell a sensible story, so it does not entice or engage students sufficiently. At ‘A’ level, the main focus is on human physiology and not enough on the physiology of plants. Students do not understand the life cycle of plants because they are taught in random chunks.
  • the university sector is just as bad; many biology departments are moving towards animal, human and biomedical sciences because they tend to bring in more funding. Plant pathologists are a dying breed in UK universities and if plant science is not made a core part of biology degrees, it could lead to a major skills gap.
  • a behavioural change is needed to get people involved with plant science and plant health. Funding initiatives, although welcome, tend to be short-lived so how do we sustain a significant long term improvement?
  • it is important to inspire young people to study plant science and demonstrate the types of careers available. We also need to make sure that employers have people with the right kinds of skills but universities often struggle to put on plant sciences courses because of a lack of student interest.

For a similar overview and some possible solutions, see http://cairotango.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/the-trouble-with-plant-science-education/

The main concerns are a lack of understanding of what plant science is, a lack of respect for whole organism plant science and plant scientists in universities, and a huge problem at pre-university level with children and young people not understanding how important plants are and why they are exciting. There is a huge skills shortage in areas such as plant nematology and in basic whole organism biology including the ability to identify organisms, be they plants, fungi, insects and the damage they cause. Students do not understand that there are careers in plant science and related areas such as integrated pest management. In summary the UK has a big educational and resourcing problem in plant sciences.

Why this post?

Think of this as a crowd-sourcing exercise. As a group we want your opinions and most importantly, your suggestions about what the best way forward is. Please engage.

 

If we do nothing

Without a well-trained cadre of plant scientists that are able to recognise whole organisms and are able to interact with industry we will see more problems arising with invasive species, our crop production industry will be severely compromised and biodiversity loss will accelerate. The current crisis in the Forest Health sector for example, is a direct result of lack of investment in plant and allied sciences.

 

What can we do?

Degree accreditation

The Society of Biology and their degree accreditation scheme is one way to restore whole organism plant science teaching to universities. Rachel Lambert-Forsyth of the Society of Biology told us that the key learning outcomes for the three-year programme are general skills such as teamwork, project management, maths and statistics, demonstrating technical skills and familiarity with a practical environment. The final component is specific skills and knowledge appropriate to the degree title. The Society expects to be able to accredit across the breadth of the biosciences but they will need to make sure that they have the relevant expertise to assess this.

We noted that in chemistry and experimental psychology, external bodies specify what should be taught in universities for a course to be accredited. Perhaps to be accredited a biology course should contain a minimum specified number of hours of plant science teaching. Apparently however, the academics involved in the development of the criteria are very against being too specific in case they stifled innovation. The criteria do, however, specify that biology courses should contain the breadth of biosciences so accreditation assessors would look for this. On the plus side, a number of large companies have stated that during their recruitment processes they will actively be looking for students with accredited degrees. This will hopefully encourage universities, including Russell Group ones, to accredit their degrees.

Named plant science degrees at the moment are in decline, Imperial College infamously reduced their plant science provision in 2010 despite having opened new facilities two years earlier. Bristol University used to run a botany degree but this was stopped recently with full support from the plant biologists in the department. The reason given was that instead of studying plants in isolation, plant science should be studied in relation to ecology, animals/insects etc. This may sound a reasonable argument but the problem is that once these subjects are taken out of courses, biochemistry and biomedicine begin to take over and basic whole organism plant science is invariably the loser. This had already happened to the Imperial plant sciences degree before its closure.

We therefore felt that the only way to prevent this happening was to ask the Society of Biology specify that core parts of whole organism plant science must be included in biology degrees, as this would force departments to make plant science appointments and to teach it in a unified way.
Inspiring the next generation of plant scientists

The high level priorities from the UKPSF report include inspiring the next generation of plant scientists and ensuring that employers’ skills needs are met through appropriate training and education.

A recent report from the Aspires project at King’s College, London, highlights that children make important decisions about what is not for them at around the age of 10 to 12 (start of KS3 in the UK). http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/ASPIRES-final-report-December-2013.pdf

It is therefore important to get the message across to children that plant sciences are exciting before this. There are a number of initiatives run by national learned and public societies already in existence e.g. the Bug Club for, Nature Detectives, Science and Plants for Schools, RSPB and Plantasia at Kew. See the links below for some examples

http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/

http://jointhepod.org/campaigns/campaign/31 Big Bumblebee Discovery

http://www.pestival.org/

http://nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

http://www.saps.org.uk/

http://www.gatsby.org.uk/en/Plant-Science/Projects/Science-and-Plants-for-Schools.aspx

http://www.naturedetectives.org.uk/club/ run by the Woodland Trust

http://www.opalexplorenature.org/ has a Kid Zone

The problem is that whilst it is “relatively” easy, given the right resources and parental and teacher support, to get pre-secondary school interested in the wonders of nature, once they get to secondary school the demands of the school curriculum and expertise available, tend to deter all but the most ‘nature-struck’ children. Those that still retain an interest in whole organism plant biology then find that at university level, options are still very much restricted. This is due to the composition of university teaching staff in biology departments which for the last twenty years or so, has been determined by fashions in research funding and not by the needs of teaching. Courses and modules available have, due to lack of suitable staff, been steadily drifting away from the much-maligned area of natural history and whole organism biology to the much-lauded, and very well-funded, bio-molecular sciences, despite the plethora of articles highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and not all by me 😉

At university level the Gatsby Foundation runs summer schools to encourage undergraduates to consider plant sciences as a career option. This is much-needed, as Ginny Page from SAPS reports that of all the resources SAPS produces, they struggle the most to get teachers using the careers resources. She said this is probably because traditionally, subject specialist teachers are not responsible for delivering careers advice so it is not a standard part of lessons.

There are still a few postgraduate programmes currently available in the UK that are plant science based, such as that run by Reading University in Plant Identification or the MSc in Plant Pathology at Harper Adams University to mention just one of our applied plant science degrees. The problem is, that although jobs await graduates form these courses, particularly those in the pest management area, it is increasingly difficult to get undergraduates to take up the places. Again pointing to the fact that there is a dearth of plant science teaching in current undergraduate courses.

There is of course the Field Studies Council who do a fantastic job, and are, with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Trust also seeking ways to train trainers and to enthuse future generations of field biologists, so it is worth looking at their priority areas and considering linking up with them.

The UKPSF is developing an online outreach toolkit to collate information on the types of activities that plant scientists can get involved with and how they can get involved, as well as some downloadable resources. They are hoping to launch the toolkit later in 2014. There are also a number of passionate advocates for the plant sciences such as Jonathan Mitchley and his Dr M Goes Wild site.

We agreed that there needs to be greater clarity of signposting to schools or anyone thinking about future careers in plant science, about how and where they can study plant science. This could perhaps be achieved by setting up a young plant science ambassador scheme for students and postdocs to go into schools to teach children about plants and talk about careers. It is likely that the Gatsby Summer School would be a good source of ambassadors.

In conclusion, we agreed that there is a need to highlight the educational opportunities and the career paths to the very many varied, and well-paid jobs in the plant science sector.

The problem is that although there are a number of organisations and individuals promoting plant science that they are not yet all centrally coordinated. We see this as a job for the UKPSF. Funding for these initiatives might then become easier and perhaps more available and generous.

 

Inspiring the teachers

We noted that there is a shortage of plant scientists teaching in schools.

At the moment trainee teachers in physic, maths, chemistry and computing are awarded £25,000 but nothing is provided to trainee biology teachers[1] as a lot of biology graduates already go on to do PGCEs (Postgraduate Certificate of Education); however a large proportion of them are molecular biologists, microbiologists, biochemists and some zoologists. Many have little or no field experience and prefer to remain in the laboratory so this reinforces the idea that plants are boring

We need to get more time for plant science into school curricula and make children interested in it because this would help to fill the spaces on plant science degrees. To do this we need to get more plant science students to take up teaching so once again we are back to the supply problem.

As there is so much to fit into a PGCE, it might be worth looking at what training could be provided for Newly Qualified Teachers during their first year of teaching. SAPS already run two day events for those who train teachers, where they have practicals and talks from plant scientists.

A few universities already have schemes such as INSPIRE, which encourage PhD students and postdocs to go into schools but this is for physics, chemistry and engineering students. The STEM Ambassador scheme provides similar opportunities but very few of the students involved are plant scientists.

Getting more plant scientists into schools is, I think, a government responsibility and will involve yet more adjustment of the school science curriculum nationally. Over to you whichever Minister is in charge this week.

 

“Our vision

At the end of our first meeting as a working group, we came up with a vision of where we would like to see plant science in the future, hopefully near rather than distant.

  • Raised awareness and appreciation of the importance of plant science to UK plc and globally.
  • Better industry and government support for plant science, including appropriate legislation.
  • Plant science seen as a well-paid and respected profession, with clarity over the variety of attractive career paths.
  • Universities valuing the impact of plant science and adjusting their recruitment priorities accordingly.
  • Biology degrees at UK universities with a clear thread of plant science throughout.
  • Accreditation and QAA benchmarks that require the inclusion of plant sciences in biology degrees.
  • Education and training covering a wide range of plant sciences that equips students with a variety of skills.
  • Stronger training links between academia and industry ensuring that HE courses are fit for purpose in industry.
  • Greater awareness and interest in plant science at all levels of education.
  • More plant scientists going into professional teaching, and more researchers engaging with schools.

The next hurdle to overcome is to implement the actions that will help us to achieve our vision. Easier said than done, but we did come up with some concrete suggestions.

 

What we decided

Short term

  • Establishment of a young plant scientist group/ambassador scheme.
  • Collation of resources providing information on plant science careers, training opportunities, courses and provisions, and depositing them on suitable websites.
  • Engagement with employers to find out what skills/training provisions they need.
  • Communication to funders/BBSRC that more support is needed for field based work, not just molecular biology.

Medium term

  • Degree accreditation and QAA benchmark engagement.

Long term

  • Getting more plant scientists into universities.

 

All very laudable but will it bear fruit? At present it is all very much dependent, certainly for the short-term and medium term objectives on the UKPSF finding the wherewithal to fund and manage our proposed initiatives. I think the bottom line is that unless universities are forced to teach a well-rounded plant science degree we are unlikely to see much positive change in the future. The onus may be on the government to change the way it funds universities.

 

Please feel free to comment and disseminate.

Lawn 2014 with fungi

 

Post script

Too much talking not enough action?

Note that in 2009, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the then Biosciences Federation held a public consultation to identify strategically important and vulnerable areas of UK bioscience expertise. “Plant and agricultural sciences were highlighted by more respondents (76%) than any other discipline as strategically important capabilities that were already vulnerable or liable to become so. According to the 47 organisations surveyed, the UK still has major skills shortages. We need improved training in-house, as well as through degree, postgraduate and specialised courses”. The following areas were identified as priorities: general plant science, taxonomy and identification, crop science, horticultural science, plant pathology, plant physiology, field studies, plant entomology, nematology, genetics, weed science and pest management.

Interestingly enough when given the chance to fund the only MSc in Entomology in the UK, the Training & Awards Committee failed to take it, and one reviewer (a molecular biologist at a leading Russell Group university) even cited the course area as being outwith the remit of the BBSRC despite  the call specifically mentioning entomology as an area that should be funded at MSc level. The mind boggles at such a narrow-minded view. I suggested at the time that funds should be ring-fenced to ensure funding in these vulnerable areas but was told that this was impossible.

Disturbingly, the BBSRC and MRC are once again conducting a survey to identify vulnerable skills areas and again, due to the composition of the various committees within the BBSRC and MRC (heavily biomedical and molecular biased), I suspect that the only way in which plant sciences and whole organism biology will be saved is by enforcing ring-fencing. We can only hope that someone has the courage and vision to implement it.

 

Post postscript

For those of you who remain unconvinced that plants are exciting I refer you to this remarkable footage from the Private Life of Plants

Private Life of Plants – Bramble Scramble

 

References

Campen, R. (2012) The great outdoors. Biologist, 59, 30-34.

Cheeseman, O.D. & Key, R.S. (2007). The extinction of experience: a threat to insect conservation? In Insect Conservation Biology (ed. by A.J.A. Stewart, T.R. New & O.T. Lewis), pp. 322-348. CABI, Wallingford.

Dayton, P.K. (2003) The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist, 162, 1-13.

Greene, H.W. (2005) Organisms in nature as a central focus for biology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20, 23-27.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2009) Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education, 43, 51-52.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Noss, R.F. (1996) The naturalists are dying off. Conservation Biology, 10, 1-3.

Tewksbury, J.J., Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M., Hampton, S.E., Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machinicki, N.J., Del Rio, C.M., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Dsalomon, A.K., Stacey, L., Trombulak, S.C., & Wheeler, T.A. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience, 64, 300-310.

 

[1] Source: http://www.education.gov.uk/get-into-teaching/funding/postgraduate-funding

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