Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department Research Strategy Review

Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department Research Strategy Review

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) consultation on its Strategy for Agricultural, Biological and Related Research (2005-2010). This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller and the Policy Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with considerable experience in this area.

This draft consultation responds to a number of common drivers (e.g. greater pooling of research expertise in Scotland, closer collaboration, achieving of critical mass to impact on the international research stage, scientific prioritisation aligned to policy, and knowledge transfer). However, due to the organisation of the Groups that comprise SEERAD, and the relationship between Departments in the Scottish Executive, this laudable approach still requires significant connectivity to ensure the achievement of the stated "Conclusions".

It is noted that the draft research strategy covers the Agricultural and Biological research and does not include SEERAD's research underpinning fisheries and aquaculture, but these are an important aspect of SEERAD's responsibilities and should be included. It would also be useful to see some reference to SEERAD's role in supporting the independent bodies funded through them, which also carry out research such as SNH and SEPA. The Forestry Commission, as a separate department, leads forest/woodland research but there are close land use links between them and SEERAD which will be increased by Land management contracts and Forest plans. It is suggested, therefore, that SEERAD look at the best way of improving links which will benefit research cohesion across Scotland, and where appropriate with DEFRA.

The different sections of the consultation paper are now addressed below:

Context and Strategy Review

Legitimate questions can be raised about the optimum level of public-sector spend on (a) agricultural and horticultural research, (b) environmental research, and (c) other areas of SEERAD’s research spend, let alone about the type of work to be funded, and the nature of the organisations best equipped to oversee the research. Research Institutes and other PSREs have a special role in long-term work and in sustaining a regional resource base but close links with the university sector will be mutually beneficial to both institutes and universities in ensuring research programmes remain intellectually dynamic and extrovert. In setting out the context for the Review, therefore, the main research providers listed should be augmented by a list of the major Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) in Scotland supporting research relevant to the needs of SEERAD, including the Research Council research centres and collaborative centres and research units in the universities.

It will also be important that in focusing on the proposed policy-driven approach to the funding of strategic research, care should be taken to ensure that the drive for "relevance" does not imperil the areas of internationally acclaimed research in its main research providers, as the Department’s policy functions necessarily require to be informed by underpinning basic science which may not have immediate policy relevance.

Objective 1 – Relevant Research

Seeking to place more emphasis on applied research and maximising "the policy relevance of the work it supports" will mean that a greater proportion of the research funded will directly address the Department’s needs. However, ensuring the cohesion of such an approach through the use of stakeholder groups could pose a major challenge, and other areas of the Strategy (such as scientific excellence and collaboration with universities) may be undermined unless there is adequate cross-reference between the stakeholder groups and the Strategic Advisory Panel. In addition, while the paper recognises that "research of a strategic nature in relevant areas will be needed to develop the knowledge base to underpin policy advice in the future", the strategy requires to be more explicit about how this is going to be accomplished. The introduction of a horizon scanning theme might also be appropriate.

The proposal to move to a "Programme approach" with a concentration on outcome rather than detailed management is welcome, as is the move to increased competition. Similarly, the Strategic Advisory Panel and a Peer Review College are good ideas. In terms of the Strategic Advisory Panel, this should be a cross-Departmental initiative, and include the best scientists across the variety of PSREs and universities available, as well as other customer representatives. This would then be a way to obtain the connectivity and value for money that is crucial to successful competition and make the policy drivers more joined up in their approach.

Objective 2 – Knowledge Transfer and Exploitation

This section should include reference to, and demonstrate alignment with, the published priorities of other major Scottish Public Sector funders, including the Scottish Enterprise Cluster Groups, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Intermediary Technology Institutes. It should also present a robust rationale for retaining the existing spend in this area. For example, the role of the bioindustry sector needs to be emphasised as one of the most buoyant components of the Scottish ‘smart’ economy as well as highlighting the potential of industrial biotechnology including new products based on crops, new energy-efficient processes, new industrial feedstocks, biorenewables, diagnostic systems and ways of minimising, and even exploiting wastes. In this context, there would have been merit in studies of the economic impacts of the Scottish Agricultural and Biological Research Institutes (SABRI) and their commercial arms.

There may well, however, be problems over the proposals for intellectual property (IP). The proposal is for all publicly funded R&D to be retained by SEERAD and made freely available. This could undermine existing commercial arms and spin-out companies of Research Institutes, weaken links with industry, as well as lessen the UK’s intellectual and commercial competitiveness.

The IP strategy should also make reference to the Freedom of Environmental Information Act, and the implementation of this in Scottish law, which should drive some of the mechanism for retaining data and IP in the public sector.

Objective 3 – Sustainability of the SEERAD Research Base

The ethos of integration and partnership between institutes and universities is laudable and there is real desire to collaborate across Scotland at the moment, and this opportunity should be grasped. The Strategy should not, however, misunderstand the complexity of working across funding systems (e.g. Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, SEERAD and Research Councils) particularly with regard to evaluation rules, such as the Research Assessment Exercise, and contracts of employment of research staff.

Prominence should be given to the consultancy-led review of possible integration of the Sponsored Bodies and developing linkages with universities. The creation of the Programme-driven approach, supplemented by a Peer Review College and a Strategic Advisory Panel, coupled to mergers of any type will inexorably lead to fundamental changes in the SABRI/SAC governance and management systems. Leadership concepts may need to be modified as individual organisations will no longer receive grant-in-aid, nor will they fully control their SEERAD-commissioned research, although it will be important to substantially increase effort to acquire non-SEERAD funding. Attracting prominent science leaders could become a challenge, and the roles of Governing Bodies will need to be redefined.

Uprating the current limit of 5% of core-funding for non-commissioned research to 10% Development Funding is a valuable development, giving necessary managerial flexibility, and improving the attractiveness of the post of Director. Even so, if this allocation is to be used for restructuring and other functions, then research flexibility will continue to be constrained and it might be helpful to increase this percentage further. However, it is important that part of this fund should also be accessible by able scientists with new ideas, as individuals remain important to scientific innovation.

Programmes of Research and Commissioning Process

The four proposed programmes target tissues are of strategic relevance to the Scottish Executive and appropriate for the current economic and political climate. Perhaps inevitably some, such as ‘Genetics and Sustainability’, are better defined and have more precise outputs than others, such as the cross-cutting programmes, but this is unfortunate as the themes addressed by these latter programmes, such as climate change and biodiversity, are important. In addition, the potential role for BIOSS to contribute to mathematical modelling, measurement of yield increases, economic balance and cost-benefit, needs to be better recognised within the Strategy.

Programme 1: Profitable and Sustainable Agriculture - Plants

This is a solid programme, but lacks imagination. For example, more could be made of the longer days on the North, which can result in higher oil content in oil seed rape. Scandinavia has a lot of expertise in this area and the Programme could put more emphasis on joint research with such countries. Programme 1 (Genetics for Sustainability) also fails to recognise the genetic resource funded by other national centres of excellence in Scotland. At Dunstaffnage, the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) hosts the national Collection of Algae and Protozoa, for both marine and freshwater species, which is the second largest in the world for microscopic plants, and an important genetic resource for feed production, pharma/nutraceuticals, and bioprocessing.

In terms of Programme 3 (Designing Crops for Sustainable Production), the focus on exploiting new knowledge about plant biology is appropriate, but plant physiology and even agronomy are necessary precursors to proper use of modern molecular techniques. Field trials are expensive, but they need to be included in experimental programmes.

Programme 2: Profitable and Sustainable Agriculture - Animals

Research in this programme should be more explicitly related to risk evaluation of known or novel animal diseases and to policies on the movement of animals for marketing, production, or slaughter purposes. Greater emphasis should also be given to the breeding and management of livestock in extensive husbandry systems encountered in Scotland.

In addition, research into animal feeds could be encompassed within this Programme. For example, the health benefits of the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) found in oily fish are now widely recognised. However, the levels of PUFA in meat can also be raised in cattle grazed on grass or forage rather than on grain. It is also surprising that aquaculture has not been included in key policy areas justifying continuing research, given that salmon farming produces 40% of Scottish food exports.

Programme 3: Environment – Land Use and Rural Stewardship

The development of more sustainable farming systems (outlined in Objective 7) is important, but low input farming does not necessarily have to be organic. There are several schemes such as those run by Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), which encourage responsible farming, minimum input and equally importantly, control of run-off of pesticides, which should also be considered.

In terms of Objective 10 (Functional Biodiversity, Natural Habitats and Landscapes) the international work of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a flagship for Scotland, but it also plays an important role in Scotland, both in research on biodiversity and in their excellent educational programmes. They have world leading researchers in many groups of plants especially lower groups such as mosses and also in fungi and lichens, which because of their growth processes, are particularly good indicators of pollution and environmental change. Similarly, SEERAD should seek to work closely with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in meeting this Objective, as SNH have been major players in the production of many of the policy documents listed.

Programme 4: Impacts on Human Health

In terms of the impact on human health of food, consideration should be given as to whether it would be more appropriate for the lead on this priority to be passed to the Health Department, who could then commission research from SEERAD-supported and other providers, as appropriate.

Cross Cutting Programmes

It is in addressing the proposed Cross Cutting Programmes where collaboration between PSREs, Research Council research centres and Scottish universities should be especially encouraged. All three cross-cutting programmes are vital to the Scottish research agenda, and should be addressed through an integrated approach. There would be considerable merit in developing these three programmes further, exploring the links with other funding streams, so as to foster the necessary co-operation and co-ordination. It is also important that these themes are viewed in a holistic way, rather than in the current limited sectoral approach through Biodiversity Action Plans and the Marine Strategic Framework.

Programme Commissioning Scheme

It can only be hoped that the new commissioning procedure, outlined on page 61, will lead to higher quality, greater accessibility, and real application of the research that is commissioned. However, greater emphasis should be placed on the integration of research effort by multiple providers within the framework of each programme, and on developing and retaining relevant expertise in the SABRIs, SAC and RBGE.

Additional Information

In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Towards a Development Strategy for Rural Scotland (March 1998); Review of SOAEFD agriculture-related scientific research programme (November 1998); EU policy on Biodiversity (May 1999); Non-Food Crops (May 1999); Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000); A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture (September 2000) and the Sixth Environmental Action Programme (May 2001).

September 2004

Copies of the above publications and further copies of this response are available from the Policy Officer, Dr Marc Rands

 

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