Review of SOAEFD Agriculture-Related Scientific Research Programme

Review of SOAEFD Agriculture-Related Scientific Research Programme

Review of SOAEFD Agriculture-Related Scientific Research Programme

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department’s consultation paper on the review of SOAEFD agriculture-related scientific research programme. The RSE is Scotland’s premier learned society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience of SOAEFD agriculture-related research.

The Society recognises that the Scottish Office’s agriculture-related scientific research is well targeted, germane, and with a high rate of achievement. Scotland is one of the world’s leading nations in agricultural research, with its research output representing a substantial "export" for the nation.

With the advent of a Scottish parliament, however, it is surprising that there is not more reference to the impact of Scottish devolution on UK research programmes. If the SOAEFD research effort is not seen in a wider UK context, and supported by Westminster, it may be difficult for an Edinburgh parliament to justify the current spend in agricultural related research, especially if the specific challenges that face Scotland was the sole criterion. MSPs will, however, need to be convinced of the importance to Scotland of maintaining research excellence in agriculture within Scotland. Scotland’s excellent current infrastructure in agriculture R&D should be seen as means of creating inward investment by attracting overseas students and scientists for training, and through commercialising research outputs.

Another point that needs addressing is scientific careers, and the current trend towards short-term contracts. With many top young scientists on short-term contracts, few can spend enough time in any one research area to become world leaders. To generate innovation and enthusiasm it is imperative that research talent is fostered and recognised. However good and balanced the research programmes may be, the need to recruit and keep dedicated staff is essential. The problems associated with short-term contract research staff were recognised in report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by Lord Dainton, on Academic Research Careers for Graduate Scientists (1995). While acknowledging that the system included flexibility for funders to target and change their research priorities, the Committee concluded, however, that the grave disadvantages of the system in terms of lack of career progression and poor pay and conditions were a serious disincentive for highly trained and experienced scientists to enter and remain in publicly financed research.

The specific issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

Balance and Range

A1: Is the balance of the current programme, between the level of underpinning science and that which is used or adapted to short and medium-term needs, optimum?

The current balance is appropriate. While serving the immediate needs of society, it is important to maintain the broad base and a real science core, rather than be too fashion led, as most major advances have been from basic research. It would, however, be hoped that a large proportion of the agriculturally related research would come to be applied in agriculturally related industries.

A2: Are the subject areas covered by the existing research programme appropriate for SOAEFD funding? What elements of the programme seem most or least appropriate?

The funding allocation to each of the seven themes could be reviewed. The present allocation seems to be based on past historical development and not on the present value of the subject area to agriculture, environment or fisheries. Scotland’s research needs to be considered in a UK context when developing a view on investment levels. Although a difficult exercise to undertake, analysis might also be undertaken to establish whether the research programmes have been successful in terms of value to the end-user. As a matter of general principle, while fisheries and forestry research is funded separately from agriculture-related research, SOAEFD should co-ordinate these disciplines more closely wherever possible.

In terms of specific elements of the programme, themes 3,6,7 and 9 seem under subscribed, while 1,2 and 5 seem generous. Specific absences include aquaculture and horticulture, and further emphasis could be given to soils and soil flora and fauna, which are of key importance in root development and fundamental to all crops, and to cleaner, more environmentally friendly methods of food production.

A3: How great has been the relevance of the programme to user needs?

The Department’s track record is good, but in danger of decreasing unless more is done to identify user needs, which evolve over time. We recognise the inherent difficulties but think the exercise should be attempted.

A4: Are there other Scottish needs which should be addressed?

With the advent of devolution, the position of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh will acquire a particular significance. While it might entail a shift in emphasis towards a greater involvement in the Scottish flora and particularly the Scottish biodiversity programme, its wider spectrum of activity will be of equal importance, nationally and internationally. The original raison d’être of the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh should not be forgotten. Once serving the medical Faculty of Edinburgh University as a "herb" garden, it still has an important contribution to make in terms of identifying and exploiting new pharmaceuticals on biologically active organic compounds.

A5: How should SOAEFD best identify user needs?

A suitable mix of information sources might include asking the end-users (30%), research scientists (40%), by intuition (10%), and policy drivers (20%). The process, along with policy issues (B3) could be helped by establishing advisory panels of eminent scientists, CHABOS and end-users, meeting once or twice a year as required, with a focus on interdisciplinary scientists who can span the range of disciplines that now contribute to plant and animal production. In addition to Governmental end-users, the commercial end-user community should include:

  • Farmers and land owners
  • Agribusinesses
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Animal and plant breeders
  • Food and drink industries

Priorities

B1: What are the emerging scientific opportunities we should be building on?

Examples of emerging scientific opportunities include: quality assurance processes; environmental protection and sustainability; definitions of why and where genetic modification is needed; the factors influencing gene expression; and marker assisted genetic selection for the attainment of animal production goals.

B2: What are the top priorities where the SOAEFD programme could assist relevant end-user needs?

In addition to the above, priorities could include the reduction of the chronic wastage and stress in modern animal production systems through the control of gene expression; the need for a rural economic policy which will sustain viable agriculture and rural communities and investigate alternative forms of land use, including a greater shift towards fulfilling environmental objectives.

B3: How should strategic science priorities be identified?

An expert panel as described in A5 could also assist in identifying and advising on strategic science priorities. In addition to greater input from commercial and industrial sources and CHABOS, input from MAFF and Research Councils such as the BBSRC, could be formalised to achieve greater research co-ordination throughout the UK. The Foresight programme is also intrinsic to this process.

Scottish System

C1: Should SOAEFD continue to encourage the Scottish System as an objective?

The Scottish system is very sound in its encouragement of a well integrated and collaborative approach to science. It should be preserved at all costs and it already acts as a much quoted model for agricultural R&D elsewhere in Europe and worldwide. In fact, the RSE have noted that the Scottish System is more frequently quoted and admired by visitors from outwith Scotland than by Scots. Perhaps it is a matter of familiarity breeding contempt!

C2: How could SOAEFD improve the Scottish System?

The Scottish Office might consider reviewing its role in the funding of education and advisory work, to ensure integration of education, research and technology transfer. The Scottish System is based on the seamless conjunction on its agricultural colleges, and especially the SAC, with the universities, and the very close collaboration between the SARIs and the universities and agricultural colleges. This is in danger of being lost with the Research Institutes taking on outreach and advisory work, the distancing of the advisory services from education and research at the SAC, the general disassociation throughout the sector of teaching and research, and the increasing separation of the varied institutions (for example, the universities from the SAC).

The Co-operation between SOAEFD bodies, and with university departments should be further strengthened. Much can be gained by scientists seeking common areas of interest and sparking off new thoughts, ideas and encouragement. SOAEFD should take a leading part in fostering this collaboration, including strengthening the arrangements through CHABOS. In addition to universities, links should be made with other Scottish Office organisations conducting relevant research, such as the Forestry Commission, and Scottish Natural Heritage, and also with non-Scottish Office bodies operating in Scotland such as the Institutes controlled by BBSRC and NERC. Perhaps even closer linkages of the SARI’s should be considered, especially in view of the benefits obtained by the integration of the east, north and west colleges into a unified SAC.

C3: What balance should there be between core grant-in-aid and competitive contract funding?

While it is essential that core funding be maintained to ensure that there are career opportunities for a corps of efficient scientists at SOAEFD bodies and to drive forward research programmes, a continuous gentle increase in the proportion of the Flexible Fund is likely to benefit the overall programme. The balance also depends on the duration of the competitive contracts. Contracts that shift money between competing research groups after three years can be unduly disruptive and at times destructive (see introduction on short-term contract research staff). Minimum contract times should be not less than five years.

While the SOAEFD must identify its priorities and sponsor research in those areas, closely targeted policy driven research programmes can result in only limited success. Real scientific advances are made through a more open pursuit of initiatives, which can be achieved through the Flexible Fund.
In opening the Flexible Fund to non-Scottish institutions, consideration should also be made to ensure that similar Government funds south of the border are freely open to Scottish institutions, especially from MAFF and the Research Councils.

C4: How might the Department build stronger links with Universities at the researcher level?

Stronger links with universities could be achieved through the funding of university post-doctoral research posts, and by encouraging more collaborative work between the SARI’s and the Scottish universities. Perhaps a proportion of the Flexible Fund could be earmarked for such joint ventures. The Royal Society of Edinburgh would be willing to assist in such a Fellowship scheme, and currently awards four SOEID/RSE Fellowships. Such fellowships would need to include an element for overheads, as universities would not receive supporting dual support system overhead funding for them through the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

C5: How might the Department build and encourage broader strategic links between sponsored bodies and Universities?

There is a need for collaborations to be better supported at Scottish Office and Institutional level. The present structures and processes surrounding the three interrelated strands of research, education and extension through the advisory services need to be more efficiently integrated.

With regard to collaborations with universities, compared with the Institutes, many university departments research facilities are not as well equipped in terms of laboratory equipment, and are therefore not often attractive collaborators to Institutes. SOAEFD contracts would have to stipulate a university link. Such co-operation also needs a change of attitude which might be fostered by joint appointments, partly funded from SOAEFD sources and partly by the university. This would save the university money and stimulate co-operative research for which SOAEFD would act as a catalyst. SOAEFD might similarly seek an agreement with the Wellcome and other major Trusts for joint funding of university/institute projects with researchers working between the two.

In supporting collaborative programmes, consideration should always be given to the likelihood of success and end-user benefit, as the more wide-ranging the collaboration, the more difficult and expensive the programmes are to manage.

Development of Science and Transfer of Technology

D1: Is there adequate exploitation of the science base which SOAEFD funds?

Not on a global basis, but there is much work to be done to stimulate uptake of R&D by the Scottish rural industries, especially SMEs. A greater participation by SOAEFD in technology transfer and commercialisation exercises, organised by the RSE with SE funding, could be helpful and productive. In this connection the Royal Society of Edinburgh currently runs a series of Commercialisation and Foresight seminars in conjunction with Scottish Enterprise and SHEFC. These are aimed at encouraging more of Scotland's science and technology to be commercialised in Scotland, and improving the interaction between universities, SME's and larger companies, with a longer term objective of encouraging greater R&D investment in businesses located in Scotland, to the benefit of the local economy. SOAEFD could join in partnership with the Society, and include in the seminar series issues and themes relevant to the SARI’s, and relevant to its overall R&D priorities.

D2: How could SOAEFD improve the transfer of the outputs of its research programme to users?

Once useable and exploitable research output is identified, the best means for its transfer is through the Scottish System. If research, education and technology transfer are integrated, the transfer of theresearch output into the industry is hugely facilitated. It could be improved by more closely linking the SAC research programmes to those of the Institutes, and the major biological and veterinary science facilities of the universities.

D3: How could SOAEFD do more to encourage the exploitation of research knowledge?

While there is no direct mechanism by which the SOAEFD can encourage industry to exploit research, a successful technology transfer mechanism, as noted above, would provide a suitable climate for it to take place. See also answer to D1, which we regard as an important suggestion.

D4: How could linked funding arrangements with industry be improved?

The MAFF LINK programme is successful and could be used as a model, as could shared Ph.D. research studentships with industry. Tax incentives could be allowed for companies prepared to allocate funds for appropriate research.

Quality

E1: What is the standing of Scottish science in the international arena?

Outstanding. Scotland is at the top of the international list for agricultural science, and its science has a higher impact rating than any other country in the world. We have huge export potential of agricultural science from the Scottish science base. The trick is to maintain this research base and to exploit it more vigorously.

E2: In which areas does Scotland take a particular lead internationally?

While Scotland takes the lead in most agriculturally related areas, particular strengths exist in agricultural related biotechnology, especially in fields related to animal nutrition, breeding and reproduction, and plant breeding.

E3: How should the quality of science and its outcomes be measured?

The current peer review system can be costly and slow in reporting back. The timetable for the assessment process should be shortened, and a less costly and time consuming Visiting Group system introduced between intervals, to provide a more informal system of review and assessment, which would be internal, and "owned" by the Research Institutes. The former UGC "visitations" taking about 2 or 3 days, with a minimum of formal paper work and written reports, might be a useful model to consider.

In addition to academic quality, SOAEFD agricultural-related research should also be assessed by its application and usefulness, rather than in higher education institution research, where quality is primarily assessed on academic merit.

E4: How should the value for money of the science base be measured?

We recognise this is a difficult area with no easy solution. In addition to its usefulness to the user community, as noted above, public perception of the value of the science base will play an increasing role. Such assessments will be influenced by the ability of the science base to foresee impending problems and to avert them, or to deliver scientific innovation that combats them.
The general issue of "value for money" is inherently difficult to quantify in any meaningful way, as it is not always easy to quantify the value of research output on issues such as improving the environment, and such quantification is also open to bias.

Information about the SOAEFD’s programme

F1: How would you assess the current availability of information about the SOAEFD Programme?

While there is sufficient information about the SOAEFD’s general programme, more could be provided on the specific research programmes underway in the research laboratories themselves.

F2: Are there ways in which general public awareness and understanding of scientific research which SOAEFD funds could be improved?

There is a need for more public awareness and understanding of science in general. The RSE could play a role with the SOAEFD in raising public awareness of its research, through joint seminars and events. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and SAC have a popular face with the public, and could expand their roles in the wider scientific and education field through events such as the Science Festival.

In general, public awareness and understanding can be increased by more direct contact between the media and researchers who can communicate well. This would hopefully result in more positive reporting of the achievements of science. The SOAEFD could assist in this process by identifying potentially sensitive areas, and ensuring the Directors of relevant Research Institutes ensure their scientists are adequately briefed and trained to answer media inquiries. The public perception of scientific issues is increasingly important in undertaking research programmes, as seen by the recent reaction against genetically modified crop trials, and the sensationalism in some of the press coverage of "Dolly".

Perhaps most important of all, the essential meaning and understanding of "risk" needs a special and concerted programme of "social understanding and acceptance". Politicians are prone to ask scientists and their professional advisers whether or not a new product is "safe". This assumes an absolute and sure standard of "safety" which can never be guaranteed. Scientists can demonstrate whether a new product or process is "unsafe", and maybe able to quantify the level of risk involved, but no product or process is, or can ever be, "100% safe". Perhaps SOAEFD and the education department, with assistance from such bodies as the RSE, can and should do more to help the lay-public to put this matter into better context.
 
[1997/98 Lecture Reports] [1997/98 Conference Reports] [1998/99 Lecture Reports]
[More Evidence] 
  

Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands

 

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