Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of BBSRC, delivered a lunchtime presentation at the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences on Monday this week. She gave an overview of BBSRC investments and strategy, and spent the final twenty minutes in discussion with the gathered researchers, who posed questions from the floor.
Supporting bioscience in the UK
BBSRC is the biggest source of plant science funding in the UK. Its charter is to fund research and training in world-class bioscience, deliver social and economic impact, and to promote public dialogue.
Hunter explained that BBSRC responsive mode funding (around £150m per year) aims “to ensure excellence in science, wherever it comes from.” It must be functioning well as the UK is top of citation impact index, and the UKPSF found that UK plant science, mainly funded by BBSRC, is second only to the US in terms of publication impact. Strategic funding, capital and campus capital funding to institutes (£6m, £73m and £30m respectively) is used to maintain skills and output in economically important areas of research at the institutes; though Hunter made it clear that ‘blue sky’ research, funded via responsive mode, is important for impact as it generates both top REF scores and top impact metrics. BBSRC also invests £29M per year in specific initiatives.
When asked for advice about increasing BBSRC funding to the department, Hunter emphasised that funding allocation is based on excellence, so departments should provide an environment where excellence can flourish. She also said, “Interdisciplinarity is important: breakthroughs will happen where disciplines coalesce.”
Training and skills
There are around 2000 PhD students at any one time in the Doctoral Training Partnerships that make up part of the £71M BBSRC investment in Knowledge Exchange, Training and Skills. During the discussion session, someone asked about support later in a researcher’s career and Hunter pointed out that investment in early career fellowships must come at the expense of something else. She suggested that BBSRC may consider the value of studentships versus early career fellowships carefully, and in consultation with the community, over the next few years.
Plant science and Agriculture
Jackie Hunter is on the Agri-tech Leadership Council, which aims to increase UK agricultural exports and the value of the UK agri-tech industry by aligning public and industry funding and building skills and research output in agriculture and agri-technology. She also spoke about future directions in BBSRC’s Agriculture and Food theme: improving the nutritional qualities of plants and biopesticides regulation are both likely to become priority areas of research.
Hunter trailed two documents intended to help make two arguments, both of value to the UK plant research community. The first is an upcoming review on animal and plant health, lead by Defra and with input from BBSRC. To be launched later this month, it will be a starting point for BBSRC and Defra to develop joint strategies in tackling current animal and plant health issues, and to work together to call for more funding in this area. The second is a discussion document about synthetic biology and other new ways of working; Hunter hopes this will help make the case for trait-based, rather than methods-based, regulation of new crops.
Hunter also highlighted a few current initiatives our readers might be interested in.
BBSRC has invested £18m in 13 Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (NIBBs). Here at GARNet, we’re in touch with the High Value Chemicals from Plants Network about a synthetic biology event next year and I recommend you join (it’s free) if you’re interested in high-value plant products or synthetic biology. The other plant science network is the Lignocellulosic Biorefinery Network.
One of Hunter’s objectives as CEO is to promote dialogue between scientists and a broad audience, and the first step towards engaging with the general public is the Great British Bioscience Festival. It is taking place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Bethnal Green, London, and there will be some amazing plant science among the exhibits. Lisa will be visiting the Festival to cover it for the next issue of the GARNish newsletter so stay tuned for her report!