Tag Archives: whole organism biology

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.




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.


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.





Filed under Bugbears

Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought  http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Terry McGlynn http://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/03/natural-history-is-important-but-not-perceived-as-an-academic-job-skill/ however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis


  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)


An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.


Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00219266.2005.9655963#.U5g5MFRwa70

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209639/

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_Biologist_2009.pdf

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_2009_Trends-in-Ecology-&-Evolution.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310 http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/4/300

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉



Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, Uncategorized