Celebrating basic plant science with David Baulcombe


Barbara McClintock discovered transposable elements when investigating irregular colouring in maize.

It’s now nearly a month since UK PlantSci 2013, and high time I wrote something about it on this blog. Rebecca Nesbit has written two posts about it already on the Society of Biology blog, and a New Phytologist meeting report will be coming out soon. The Weeding the Gems contribution to this collection of UK PlantSci nostalgia is a write-up of the second keynote talk by David Baulcombe.

David Baulcombe’s talk was a rallying cry in defence of basic research and plant science. He kicked it off with a whistle-stop history of important scientific achievements, all by scientists carrying out basic research on plants: Robert Hooke, who identified and labelled ‘cells’ for the first time when studying woody plant biomass in 1665; 19th century monk Gregor Mendel, whose peas were the first genetic model system; Russian botanist Dmitri Iwanowsk, who in 1892 was the first scientist to identify and characterise a virus; and Barbara McClintock, who discovered transposable elements in maize. More recently even than McClintock’s work, Argonaute proteins, tumour formation, and cellular totipotency were all identified first in plants (Bohmert et al. 1998, EMBO 17:170; Sussex 2008, Plant Cell 20:1189).

The scientists involved in the discoveries listed above were carrying out what they presumably viewed as interesting work, simply because they wanted to know the answer – pure science, but all with far-reaching consequences. Baulcombe commented than in the 21st Century research is impact-driven, so some of these pioneers may have struggled to get funding via today’s funding mechanisms.

Now, it is unfair to say that research today is all end-product focussed and impact driven. I know that the BBSRC and other funders worldwide fund basic plant science research regularly, and I highlight some of it here on this blog. Baulcombe’s main point in this first half of the talk was that basic excellent plant science research has to be celebrated in its own right rather than as a half-way point to a useful product in the future.

Agricultural, medical, nutritional, and technological advances that are close to market and/or easy to connect with real life are frequently promoted in the general media. Basic research, on the other hand, is circulated only in scientific journals and popular science publications. Yet if funders and commercial innovators ignore basic science, there will be nothing to base applied science on. Promoting and celebrating plant science will raise awareness of its importance and, yes, its impact, to the taxpayers who fund science and to the policy makers who decide where funding will be focussed.

Baulcombe then moved on to talk about the complex relationship between science and politics. He took a different approach to Charles Godfray’s discussion of the same topic the day before (blogged here by Rebecca Nesbit). He commented that, “When we do science, we are apolitical. But when we discuss the application of science, it is very political.” He was referring to regulations surrounding agricultural technology and the lack of government involvement in bringing agri-tech developments to market in recent decades. Since the closure of government near-market research centres like the Plant Breeding Institute, it has been difficult for UK plant scientists to see their research translated into a crop variety. You can read more about plant breeding and the PBI on the UKPSF blog.

There are many organisations that blend politics with science and work with scientists, policy-makers and the general public to try and see agri-tech used for the optimum benefit – see CABISCICIMMYT, and the Global Food Security Programme to name only a few. There aren’t many outlets of any kind for the promotion of basic plant science. GARNet are happy to get involved with filling the gap over the next few months. If you have a great pure plant science story to tell, please get in touch with me.

Image credit: Harvest Corn by Gavin Mills via stock.xchng


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