Tag Archives: training

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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The UK needs more forest health specialists

Last week (April 22nd and 23rd 2015) I had the pleasure of attending the Institute of Chartered Foresters’  National Conference in Cardiff.  The theme of the conference was Tree health, resilience and sustainability.

ICF conference

 The PowerPoint versions of the presentations are available here.

It was very well attended with over 150 delegates and divided into six sessions; Setting the Scene, Overseas Experience, Perspectives on Risk, Searching for Resilience and Sustainability, Practical Responses in the Field and finally Messages for Government and the Profession.  The speakers came from a range of backgrounds; universities, research institutes, the forest industry and others.  Dr John Gibbs, a former colleague of mine from Forest Research opened the formal talks with a masterly review of how forest health problems were tackled in the last century, using Dutch Elm Disease as his focal organism. He was followed by Professor James Brown from the John Innes Institute discussing how lessons from agriculture could be used to develop strategies to combat tree diseases.  Both these speakers pointed out that there was a grave shortage of forest pathologists and entomologists in the UK, particularly in the university sector.   James Brown commented that he had been shocked to discover he had only been able to count seven people in the sector working on tree diseases and added that this did not make them forest pathologists.  We had talks from overseas speakers such as Professor Mike Wingfield from South Africa on global forest health threats, Jim Zwack from the USA speaking on the Emerald Ash Borer as an urban pest problem and Catherine St-Marie highlighting the fact that climate change was aiding and abetting the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle in Canada.

There was a surprisingly interesting talk on the problems of insuring forests against pests and disease form Phil Cottle of Pardus Underwriting Limited and an enlightening presentation from Professor David Ball from Middlesex University talking about uncertainty and decision-making.  Again both these speakers highlighted the need for further information about pests and diseases.

Day 2 had us searching for resilience and sustainability within the UK forestry sector with a very entertaining talk from Jo O’Hara, Head of Forestry Commission Scotland.  Her talk really drove home to me how much UK forestry has changed over the last 30 years; when I joined the Forestry Commission in 1982 they had only just appointed their first woman District Officer, and now a woman runs FC Scotland – a very welcome sign of change.  Tariq Butt from Swansea University spoke about the use of entomopahogenic fungi as biological control agents in forestry, something increasingly moving higher on the agenda as we face the loss of even more conventional pesticides in the next few years and Martin Ward, the Director-General of EPPO asked us to consider how global plant health arrangements could be improved to protect trees more effectively.  Again the message was that we need more forest health specialist, and not just in the UK.   After the morning coffee break, Joan Webber, the Principal Pathologist for Forest Research UK, spoke about detection and precautionary measures to combat biosecurity threats and yet again highlighted the need for further research and eyes on the ground; in other words more specialist staff are required.  Neil Strong from Network Rail drew our attention to the problems caused by trees to our railway system and then Bill Mason extolled the virtues of increasing species and structural diversity when planting new forests and managing older ones, to improve resilience.

The afternoon session kicked off with Clive Potter from Imperial College talking about understanding what the public’s concerns about tree health are and how certain events can amplify risk perception among the public.  The public outcry about Chalara and Ash Dieback being a particularly good example of the phenomenon.  I followed with a talk about the needs for professional education which gave me the opportunity to point out what subject areas should be covered in an aspiring forester’s education.

Essential skills

I was also able to remind my audience that the number of UK universities providing specific forestry training at undergraduate level had dwindled to less than a handful and that despite offering modules purporting to cover forest health problems, only two employ specialist staff in those areas.  At postgraduate level there is only one course that deals specifically with forest health issues in the UK, the MSc in Conservation & Forest Protection that I run at Harper Adams University.

My take-home messages to a very receptive audience was that students need more emphasis on identification skills and much more practical experience, that current forestry professionals need to keep their eyes open and practice looking for pests and diseases as well as taking any opportunity to refresh their training and that UK universities offering forestry related courses need to employ more forest entomologists and forest pathologists.  Even more importantly, the UK government need to make sure that there are financial incentives to encourage universities to employ more forest entomologists and forest pathologists by increasing targeted research funding in those areas and once increased, maintain those levels of funding.  There also needs to be a clear signposting of career opportunities for the next generation of forest health scientists and if we as a country are serious about safeguarding our native woodlands and forest estate, then more jobs need to be created.

As I have written elsewhere, we cannot afford to sit back and hope that things will get better on their own.  Versions of this slide appeared on the screen several times during the course of the conference.  We are under attack and we need more suitably qualified people to help repel and contain the invaders.

Forest pests

 

Additional reading

Leather, S.R. (2014) Current and future threats to UK forestry. Outlooks on Pest Management, 25, 22-24.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How prepared is the UK to combat future and current threats to forests? Commonwealth Forestry Association Newsletter, 64, 10-11.

 

Post script

I am very grateful indeed to the Institute of Chartered Foresters for giving me the opportunity to speak at the conference and for providing generous hospitality.  It was one of the most engaging and interesting conferences that I have been to for a very long time.  Well done ICF.

 

Post post script

It was also good to see Twitter being used very successfully with the #Treehealth hashtag.  We even had participants from the Canadian Forestry Service!

ICF tweets

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Entomyopia and Entoalexia – two potentially life-threatening conditions

This post was stimulated by two recent events.  First, a conversation I had at a curry evening organised by the amateur band that my wife plays in.  My neighbour was a well-educated modern languages teacher in her early forties.  We discussed our various jobs and she evinced surprise that anyone would want to work with insects and even when I explained the myriad benefits of understanding insect biology and ecology to her in terms of food security, vector control, detritivores, integrated pest management, pollination etc., she was still unconcerned about the lack of training provision for entomology and the dwindling number of young entomologists in the population.  I also highlighted the growing disconnect between people and nature.  Her response was that it was just the way it was and that people had other interests now!  I was, despite the fact that I have bemoaned the lack of funding for invertebrate research and training for some time now, totally amazed and down-hearted.  The second event was when one of my entomological colleagues reported to me how shocked he had been, when describing the recent opening of our new entomology building at Harper Adams University to his next door neighbour, a retired engineer, that the neighbour expressed great surprise that anyone would want such a facility and why anyone would want to spend that amount of money to enable entomological research.

I have written before about my worries about the decline of interest in natural history and entomology (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010) but I feel that it is now well past time to do something urgently about this lack of understanding among the public, the educational establishment, funding councils and the government.  Not only is institutional invertebratism  (Leather, 2009, 2013) still alive and well but we now have two potentially life-threatening conditions that desperately need curing.

Entomyopia

noun

entomological short-sightedness

        • a condition in which insects are viewed either as pollinators or as nuisances
        • a lack of foresight or discernment as to the importance of entomology:  a narrow view of entomology

Entoalexia

noun

entomological blindness

        • a condition in which a person or organisation, is totally oblivious to the importance of entomology and insects

Insects - what insects

Symptoms

The closing of entomology departments and research groups

A reduction in the numbers of entomologists employed by universities and research institutions

An ageing population of practicing entomologists, many characterised by grey beards and spectacles

Lack of understanding by the general public about why the study of entomology is important to their well-being

A lack of teaching of invertebrate biology at secondary schools and at undergraduate level

A lack of government funding

A tendency for members of the general public to scream and/or flinch when insects enter their personal space

A tendency for members of the general public to kill insects when found in their personal space

A failure by the majority of the population to appreciate the beauty and wonder of insects

Investing hundreds of millions into medical research to keep people alive for longer (a good thing) without thinking about how the extra mouths are going to be fed without similar levels of investment in crop protection research (a very bad thing)

Funding in conservation and whole organism biology and ecology heavily biased towards “large charismatic mega-fauna”

Schoolchildren able to name the ten most endangered mammal species in the world but unable to recognize and name the ten most common insect species in their own country

 

Treatment

A concerted effort by all entomologists to explain to the general public, the educational establishment, funding bodies, the media and  government why we need urgently more entomologists and why the study of entomology is crucially important to our well-being.  I would go further than that and suggest that we need to redouble our outreach activities and to actively lobby those who hold the purse strings and those that represent us in government.  Yes, national entomological societies such as the Royal Entomological Society in the UK are doing much more to promote entomology than they used to but much more remains to be done.  The Amateur Entomologist’s Society  has, I have been reminded, also been active in this area for more than eighty years.  My message to all entomologists is act now before it is too late.

 

Prognosis

At the current level of investment  into treatment and cures, very gloomy.

 

Post script

As I was preparing this article Brigit Strawbridge published an impassioned plea to all of us to take more notice of the little things that run the world

http://www.beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/mass-insect-extinction-elephant-in-room.html
Post post script

I would be remiss if I did not point out that mycology, plant pathology and plant nematology are also extremely vulnerable and just as important to our well-being as entomology.

 

Post post post script

Entomyopia  is apparently not a new disease, shortly after posting this I came across this gem from 1882.

“No science is so generally slighted, ignored, and misunderstood as is Entomology.  Hysterical humanitarians, novelists, poets, political agitators, classical students, speak in terms of contempt or horror of the “fly-hunters””

Anonymous (1882) The Journal of Science, and Annals of Astronomy, Biology, geology, Industrial Architecture, Manufactures and Technology, 4, 208

 

References

Leather, S. R. (2009). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414.

Leather, S. R. (2013). Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation 16: 379-380.

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.

 

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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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How ready is the UK to combat current and future threats to our forests and woodlands?

Almost exactly two years ago (February 2012) a consignment of ash trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to one in Buckinghamshire, were confirmed to be infected by the fungus causing ash dieback, Chalara fraxinea.  By October of that year, it had been confirmed by Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) scientists to be present in a number of woodland sites within the natural environment.  The story was quickly picked up by the national press http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/9660538/Ash-dieback-now-beyond-containment.html and other media http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20079657 and articles about the severity of the disease and our inability to control it spread proliferated at  a fantastic rate.  Partly as a result of this, the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce was convened by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor in November 2012.  I was invited to be a member of the Taskforce which was an independent, multi-disciplinary group of members of the academic community, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200428/tree-taskforce-tor.pdf and very willingly, agreed to serve on it.   Our remit was to “provide advice on the current threats to tree health and plant biosecurity in the UK and make recommendations about how those threats could be mitigated”.   What surprised me and other members of the Task Force was the interest and emotional responses that ash dieback generated among the general public.  After all, a few years earlier another one of our iconic tree species, oak, was under threat by another fungal disease, Phytopthora ramorum, somewhat misleadingly known as Sudden Oak Death, which despite its potential threat to cause landscape level changes comparable with those caused by Dutch Elm Disease (Potter et al., 2011) failed to cause the same  level of media hysteria.  Our best guess for why there was such an outburst of press and media coverage and subsequent public concern about ash dieback, was that the Chalara outbreak was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  People, had perhaps become sensitised to forestry due to what seemed to be a constant stream of stories of threats, both man-made, such as the proposed sell-off of parts of the Forestry Commission’s estate by the UK government in 2010 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/8082756/Ministers-plan-huge-sell-off-of-Britains-forests.html and natural, such as Sudden Oak Death and other pests and diseases.

For the record, although Chalara  fraxinea is now being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures and is widespread across the  United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, it no longer makes the front pages of our national newspapers.

Ash dieback distribution

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara

We in the Tree Health Taskforce did not just consider ash dieback; we reviewed the whole range of biotic threats, both current and future, and highlighted a number of reasons that we felt had contributed to the problems and made recommendations about how these could be rectified.  In essence, how could we stop yet another ash dieback scenario occurring. Our joint report was published in May 2013 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report.  One of our major findings was that the UK as a whole lacked, or would shortly lack, enough trained personnel able to recognise and respond to threats to our forests and woodlands from native and alien pests and diseases.  One of the more immediate outcomes of our report was the rapid commissioning of some research to determine just how serious the situation actually was.

The results of this report were published by Defra on February 5 of this year,  TH0115 Strategic Analysis of Capability and Capacity to undertake Tree Health Research and Evidence Activity in the UK.  The report highlighted research and evidence themes identified by key policy stakeholders and forest researchers from the university sector, research institutes and forest industry.

Ten themes were identified – Horizon scanning, Pathways and trade, Pest and pathogen biology and epidemiology, Detection and surveillance, Ecological patterns, Control and Management, Adaptation and resilience in forests and forestry, Governance and contingency planning, Economic evaluation and analysis and finally Public engagement, communication and citizen science.

Three of the themes – Pest and pathogen biology and epidemiology, Control and management and Adaptation and resilience in forests and forestry, were identified as areas where existing research providers lack current capability and/or capacity in one or more types of expertise.

The report also highlighted that there are serious skills shortages in the UK in mycology, plant pathology and entomology, especially in relation to forest health. Even in those disciplines where universities still run undergraduate degree courses, tree specific expertise such as silviculture, the care and cultivation of forest trees, was also noted as being in short supply.

So how did we get into this mess?  Why are we seeing what appears to be an unprecedented assault on the UK by invasive forest pests and diseases (Defra 2013).  Exotic and invasive insects are not a new phenomenon in the UK; the European spruce sawfly, Gilpinia hercyniae was first recorded in 1906, the Douglas fir woolly aphid Gilleteela (Adelges) cooleyi) in 1913, the web spinning larch sawfly Cephalcia lariciphila in 1953, Megastigmus spermotrophus, the Douglas fir seed wasp since at least the late 1940s,  Ips cembrae, the large larch bark beetle, since at least 1955

Ips cembrae

Ips cembrae  http://www.padil.gov.au/pests-and-diseases/Pest/Main/135614

and the great spruce bark beetle, Dendroctonus micans since at least 1973 (Crooke & Bevan, 1957; Bevan 1987).  Apart from Dendroctonus, none of these insects has however, had landscape level effects or for that matter, made the headlines to the same extent that ash dieback did.   Since the beginning of the current century the situation has changed dramatically, the influx of tree pathogens has continued to rise at an almost exponential rate and the number of potentially landscape changing insect pests has also seen an increase e.g. the horse chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella, first seen in London in 2002  (Straw & Williams,  2013) is now found as far north as Liverpool in the West and North Yorkshire in the East (personal observation); the pine tree lappet moth Dendrolimus pini, established in Scotland since 2004.  The oak processionary moth, Thaumetopoea processionea, has been firmly established in London since at least 2006 and looks set to spread further north and west (Townsend, 2013); it is probably only the bizarre weather we have had the last couple of years that has slowed it down slightly.  The Asian longhorn beetle, Anoplophora glabripennis, caused some concern when an outbreak was found in 2012 in Kent; the eradication of which resulted in the felling of several hundred healthy trees.

Anapolophora

Anopolophora glabripennis  (source USDA)

A related species, the Citrus longhorn beetle A. chinensis, is often intercepted but so far is not known to have established in the UK (Nigel Straw personal communication.)

Given the time that it takes for an exotic insect to reach noticeable population levels, all these insects may have actually established four or five years earlier and it could already be too late to eradicate these pests.  Attempts to eradicate the Oak processionary moth from London have, for example, now ended and been replaced by a policy of containment and eradication is only attempted in the case of new outbreaks outside London (Forestry Commission 2013).  Another species which has often been intercepted since the 1970s, is Ips typographus, a severe pest of spruce.  Other possible invaders include the pine processionary moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa, other Ips species attacking pine and spruce, and of great, and increasing concern, the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, a native of Asia which is now spreading rapidly outwards from Moscow (Straw et al., 2013).

Agrilus_planipennis_001

Agrilus planipennis  (source Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Forestry Archive)

So what may have caused this flood of new forestry pests in the UK?  The most obvious change to forestry practice in the UK which undoubtedly influenced the rise of the exotic conifer pests of the first half of the 20th Century was the large-scale afforestation programmes of many non-native tree species, brought about by the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919.  This rapid afforestation of sites, many of which had not had trees on them for centuries,  provided new hosts for native pests and pathogens and inadvertently allowed the introduction of non-native insects.  The other major change over the last 50 years or so is in global trade patterns; the world is a much smaller place, goods travel extremely quickly, come from much further afield and in greater volumes.  The ability to transport living plant material has also much improved.  In pre-container and pre-bulk air transport days, goods that were packed with unprocessed or poorly processed timber (pathways exploited by many bark beetles) took many weeks to make the long sea voyages and the insect pests often did not survive to make it to land and a new host plant.  Long sea-voyages also meant that the transport of living plant material and their accidental insect passengers also had less chance of surviving to reach the UK.  Another major change to our trade habits is the “instant tree/garden syndrome” where developers and the general public are no longer willing to wait several years for their trees to grow; rather they plant semi-mature trees, many of which come from outside the UK and which come with very large root-balls.  It is impossible for the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate (PHSI) service to check the huge volume of soil associated with these roots and many organisms must be entering the UK unbeknownst to the very over-stretched PHSI.

An often overlooked change that I am certain has contributed to the large-scale invasion of tree pests and diseases, is a result of re-organisation of the Forestry Commission.  Prior to 1990, the Forestry Commission had a localised approach to forest management.  Most forest blocks or amalgamations of them had a Chief Forester or Head Forester in charge of them.  He (very rarely she), lived in the near vicinity and much like the old village Bobby, walked his beat regularly.  Changes in forest health were thus much more likely to be spotted early and a forest pathologist or entomologist from either The Northern Research Station (NRS) or Alice Holt called in to make an assessment as to the cause of the problem.  I worked at NRS during the 1980s and early 1990s so have had personal experience of the effectiveness of this system.  By 1990, the Forestry Commission had amalgamated many forests and the number of District Offices was much reduced with a consequent reduction in the number of foresters living in near to individual forest blocks.  Forest health problems were thus much less likely to be noticed at an early stage.

The other major change was the decision to shift research to amenity forestry and away from commercial production forestry leading to a reduction in the number of entomologists and pathologists employed by the Forestry Commission as budgets were redirected.  There are now no longer enough key personnel in these disciplines to cope adequately with current problems, let alone those likely to arise.  At the same time within the university sector, the way in which government-funded universities was changed  to a system based on the outcome of the notorious publication metric based Research Assessment Exercise.  This disadvantaged academics specialising in niche applied disciplines such as entomology and plant pathology whose research output rarely, if ever, made it into the hallowed pages of Nature and Science.  Recruitment of staff in these areas in the research intensive universities was severely curtailed and retirees replaced by molecular biologists or vertebrate ecologists publishing in so-called ‘high-impact’ journals (Leather, 2009).  Universities have also replaced many specialist niche degrees with more broadly based subjects perceived to be more attractive to students.  As a result, teaching in these areas has also suffered and very few biology undergraduates in the UK today have any experience with whole organismal biology or the field and taxonomic skills needed be able to recognise forest health problems outside in the real world (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  The situation is now very critical, with, as far as I know only two forest entomologists (if you count me) and one forest pathologist teaching in UK universities today.  This is not a healthy situation for the country and we in the Tree health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce highlighted the need to address key skills shortages in this area as an urgent priority (Defra, 2013).

Worryingly, the problems do not just lie with exotic and invasive pests.  There are a number of long-established native pest species that still need research into their control and management.  The large pine weevil Hylobius abietis, which in the words of the

hylobius2

Hylobius abietis adults

first Forestry Commission entomologist J W Munro writing just ten years after the formation of the Forestry Commission stated “The pine weevil (Hylobius abietis) problem still occupies the attention of the Forestry Commissioners” (Munro, 1929).  The same statement is still as pertinent today although control measures for this insect have evolved greatly from the early use of DDT and organophosphates to more sophisticated, but possibly no more effective, biological control options (Torr et al., 2007).  The pine beauty moth, once a harmless indigenous moth species, rose to become a notorious pest of the introduced Lodgepole pine during the 1970s and still continues to pose a threat to Scottish plantations today (Hicks et al., 2008).   The often over-looked pine looper moth, Bupalus piniarius, may yet cause problems to our native Scots pine (Straw et al., 2002a). The green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum  has never gone away (Straw et al., 2002b) and may, if climate change predictions  are correct, make Sitka spruce a non-viable crop in the UK (Straw et al., 2009).

This is a problem we ignore at our peril.  Action needs to be taken, sooner, rather than later. As conventional chemicals are withdrawn and fewer chemicals approved for use in forestry, the emphasis must inevitably shift to biological control methods using classical natural enemies or biopesticide approaches with entomopathogenic fungi or nematodes or microbially derived pesticides such as Bt which was used against the Oak processionary moth in Berkshire in 2013.  We may even be able to develop even more specific methods such as pheromone disruption combined with improved tree resistance (Leather & Knight, 1997).   We need to improve quarantine measures, develop better detection methods and urgently provide more funding to enable the employment and maintenance of an expanded Plant Health Inspectorate as recommended by the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce (Defra, 2013) and by TH0115.  The latter report highlighted the widespread concerns about the lack of undergraduate and even more critically, the lack of MSc and PhD opportunities in forestry and tree health in particular.

A key recommendation of the report is that funding needs to be put in place to support postgraduate level teaching and training support. This is to make sure a new generation of people capable of working in the tree health area, assisting a smoother and more efficient transition from broad-based undergraduate biology degrees to PhD level research.

To staff the proposed new inspectorate and to make sure we have a new cohort of well-trained forest health experts, we need to encourage newly qualified undergraduates to take up the existing training opportunities at post-graduate level, such as the MSc courses run in Entomology, Integrated Pest Management and Conservation & Forest Protection at Harper Adams University by offering government bursaries.  We are planning to launch new MSc courses in Plant Pathology, Plant Nematology and Forestry Management from September 2014.  We also offer undergraduate degrees in Countryside and Environmental Management and Wildlife Conservation and Natural Resource Management, both of which have significant woodland and forest-related elements

In addition, we need to persuade UK universities to employ forest entomologists and pathologists in academic posts by increasing the amount of appropriate whole organism research funding in these areas.  The Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm also needs to be able to expand its staff in entomology and pathology to enable it to cope with existing and future threats to our forest estate.  Without such capacity building the future of forestry in the UK is uncertain to say the least.

Post Script

At the risk of seeming to blow our own trumpet still louder, another recommendation from the recent Defra report is that a virtual Centre for Tree Health Science should be created. This would be created by linking together those organisations currently active in the field and with appropriate training provision available.  A number of recent key appointments and the newly launched multidisciplinary Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) mean that we at Harper Adams University are also in an excellent position to undertake research in this area.  We are, as I write, involved in projects on Oak Processionary Moth and Acute Oak Decline.

References

Bevan, D (1987) Forest Insects.  Forestry Commission Handbook 1, HMSO, London.

Crooke, M & Bevan, D (1957) Notes on the first occurrence of Ips cembrae (Heer) (Col., Scolytidae). Forestry 30, 21-28

Defra (2013) Tree Health and plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce Final Report.  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report

Forestry Commission (2013) The Oak Processionary Moth http://www.forestry.gov.uk/opm#description accessed 23 October 2013

Hicks, BJ, Leather, SR & Watt, AD (2008) Changing dynamics of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in Britain: the loss of enemy free space? Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 10, 263-271.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 413-414.

Leather, SR & Knight, JD (1997) Pines, pheromones and parasites:a modelling approach to the integrated control of the pine beauty moth. Scottish Forestry 51, 76-83.

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

Munro, JW (1929) The biology and control of Hylobius abietis L. Part 2. Forestry 3, 61-65.

Potter, C., Harwood, T., Knight, J.D. & Tomlinson, I. (2011) Learning from history, predicting the future: the UK Dutch elm disease outbreak in relation to contemporary tree disease threats. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 1966-1974. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1573/1966.short

Straw, NA. & Williams, DT (2013) Impact of the leaf miner Cameraria ohridella (Lepidoptera: Gracillariidae) and bleeding canker disease on horse-chestnut direct effects and interaction. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 15, 321-333.

Straw, NA, Armour, H & Day, KR (2002a) The financial costs of defoliation of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) by pine looper moth (Bupalus piniaria). Forestry, 75, 525-536.

Straw, N.A., Timms, J.E.L., & Leather, S.R. (2009) Variation in the abundance of invertebrate predators of the green spruce aphid Elatobium abietinum (Walker) (Homoptera: Aphididae) along an altitudinal transect. Forest Ecology & Management, 258, 1-10.

Straw, NA., Fielding, NJ, Green, G & Price, J (2002b) The impact of green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum (Walker), on the growth of young Sitka spruce in Hafren Forest, Wales: delayed effects on needle size limit wood production. Forest Ecology and Management  157, 267-283.

Straw NA, Williams, DT, Kulinich O & Gninenko, YI (2013) Distibution, impact and rate of spread of emerald ash borer Agrilus planipennis (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) in the Moscow region of Russia.  Forestry 86, 515-522

Torr, P, Heritage, S, & Wilson, MJ (2007) Steinernema kraussei, an indigenous nematode found in coniferous forests: efficacy and field persistence against Hylobius abietis. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 9, 181-188.

Townsend, M (2013) Oak processionary moth in the United Kingdom. Outlooks on Pest Management 24, 32-38.

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