UK Risks Losing Out Without Improved Investment In Plant Science: Society of Biology Releases

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The UK’s position as a world leader in plant science is under threat from a shortage of funding and a lack of stable investment in essential skills, reveals a report released today. In the report, UK Plant Science: Current status and future challenges, the UK Plant Sciences Federation lays out urgent actions needed to ensure the UK can respond to the significant global challenges we face.

Professor Jim Beynon, Chair of the UK Plant Sciences Federation, says: “Plant science is a vital ingredient in solving some of our most serious problems, such as guaranteeing food security, coping with the threats from climate change, protecting biodiversity, and improving human health. Without critical investment in plant science research, its application and training of specialists, we simply won’t have the capacity to tackle these issues successfully.”

The report is the first ever assessment of UK plant science. It is based on a year of consultation, in which the UK Plant Sciences Federation heard from over 300 individuals and organisations from the UK plant science community.

It calls for a doubling of investment in UK plant science, which currently receives less than 4% of public research funding, and urges Government and industry to work together to achieve this.

“UK plant science delivers enormous international prestige and influence despite being under-resourced,” says Professor Beynon. “The global impact of UK plant science research is something of which we can be extremely proud, but continuation of our strong position is far from assured.

“In addition to increased investment, we need a more concerted approach to ensuring progress in both fundamental scientific understanding and its application for all our benefit. This has not been the case for more than a decade and the adverse impact on skills supply, infrastructure and innovation is now becoming apparent.”

Concerns over skills shortages in UK plant scientists were expressed by 96% of organisations surveyed. The report explains that the loss of some skills could be irreversible in less than 15 years if not addressed.

Dr Mimi Tanimoto, Executive Officer of the UK Plant Sciences Federation, says: “Many plant scientists with vital specialist skills and experience are approaching retirement. Without succession planning, there is a real danger that the UK will have a skills shortage in some crucial areas.

“The major shortage of people able to diagnose the causes of plant diseases is particularly worrying. UK crops and forests face increasing threats from new pests as the recent outbreak of ash dieback has demonstrated.”

Educating and inspiring the next generation of plant scientists is identified in the report as a UK priority for plant science.

“At school level, biology teachers need greater opportunities to enhance their knowledge of plant science, and develop new strategies for teaching it,” says Ginny Page, Director of Science and Plants for Schools. “Universities must also respond by reinvigorating their bioscience degree courses with more visible and engaging plant science content.”

“Currently, training in plant science is not meeting employers’ needs,” says Dr Tanimoto. “It is important that training is not confined to universities. We urgently need more targeted further education, apprenticeships, industry-linked studentships, and continuing professional development.”

All these threats to plant science come at a time of serious global challenges. It is estimated that a doubling of food production will be needed by 2050 to feed the growing population (1,2). Plant science will play an important part in helping to improve crop yields and resilience.

“UK consumers are by no means immune to the effects of global food scarcity,” says Professor Beynon. “Currently, agriculture occupies 70% of UK land area, and we import 38% of our food (3,4). Volatility in food supply will inevitably drive up food prices, so we can all expect to pay more for our food unless the UK can increase its agricultural productivity.”

There have already been three major spikes in world food prices since 2007 and such fluctuations are expected to continue.

Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology
0207 685 2553, 07714 594862

1. Ray, D. K. et al. Yield trends are insufficient to double global crop production by 2050. PLoS ONE 8(6), e66428 (2013).

2. Tilman, D. et al. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. PNAS 108(50), 20260–20264 (2011).

3. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2012. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2013).

4. The UK imports £37.6bn of food, feed and drink annually. Reference: Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2012. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2013).

The Society of Biology is a professional body for bioscientists – providing a single unified voice for biology: advising Government and influencing policy; advancing education and professional development; supporting their members, and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences.

The UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) is a special interest group of the Society of Biology which brings together the plant science community in the UK to create a coordinated approach to research, industry, funding, education and outreach in this vital sector of the biosciences.

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