We recently spent a few days clearing a house of my wife’s mother’s possessions. It was both an emotional and sobering experience. Memories and mementos of a long and eventful life were packed into a few cardboard boxes in the back of a borrowed transit van.
Whilst on the long drive back I thought that the agricultural industry has also had similar experiences over the last few decades. All those research establishments and experimental husbandry farms that have been closed down and much of what remained packed into cardboard boxes. In many ways, those who work in research establishments have to expect such change because fundamentally, change is what research is about. However, it is more complicated than that.
In my opinion change can only really be accepted if there is agreement that the current research is no longer necessary or relevant, the knowledge already gained is retained within the research community and the change reflects the most potentially beneficial direction that current research has opened up.
I was working at, rather than for, the Weed Research Organisation in 1983 when its closure was announced. Whilst having enormous sympathy for the members of staff, I admit to thinking at the time that perhaps its days were over. Established before the widespread availability of herbicides, perhaps the problems it was trying to solve had become solvable. I was also comforted by the fact that the key staff members with unique knowledge were to be transferred to other research establishments. However, this was not a true legacy as some of these disciplines have now disappeared from publicly-funded research in the UK. For instance, when I recently needed crucial information on the behaviour of herbicides in dry soils, I had to consult a specialist in Denmark.
Research budgets are tight and there are other demands on the Government’s purse so difficult decisions have to be taken. I personally agree with the emphasis on genomic research over the last few years but there is a danger of other critically important disciplines dropping by the wayside. Resistance to pesticides means that decisions to close such establishments as the Weed Research Organisation, a decision which may have seemed logical at the time, should not be viewed as the final say on a research discipline. Perhaps more academic research is now required on the behaviour of pesticides in the soil because of the challenge we face from pesticide movement to water.
People still fondly refer back to the role of ADAS during the 1970s and 1980s in transferring publicly-funded research into practice. I was an ADAS field adviser for most of those two decades and I am not so convinced about our achievements. Much of the publicly-funded research in the 1970s and 1980s was applied research, the most relevant of which could easily be adopted. That is no longer the case and so the challenges today are on a different scale.
There are different approaches to packaging and delivering knowledge. In terms of genomics, the packaging is the crop variety that is sold to the farmer. NIAB is playing a central role in packaging the knowledge gained in publically funded genomic research into breeding lines for commercial plant breeders. In the parlance, it is called pre-breeding. In a similar vein, pesticide products are the simply adopted result of very complex privately-funded research.
It is the bits of publicly-funded and indeed industry (including levy) funded research that do not result in a product but can be used to benefit agriculture that are potentially most difficult to transfer into practice. Where the advantages are so obvious and the cost and risk of adoption is low then there is not really a problem.
The difficulty lies where there is a significant cost and/or risk of adopting something which may give less than stellar returns. In this case, it is up to those in research and its transfer to be honest and open when encountering these potential blocks to adoption rather than to moan that a couple of PowerPoint based talks have not persuaded the industry to adopt their pet project.
By its very nature, not all research is successful and the results of many projects are not at a stage that where they would lead to changes in farm decision making. However, all good relevant research that is honestly interpreted can be a stepping-stone for the industry.
Come along to the NIAB Cambridge Open Day on Tuesday 25 June to see pre-breeding research in action alongside an afternoon of seminars, indoor exhibits, and field demonstrations. Now at our new Park Farm demonstration site at Histon with expertise in plant breeding and pathology, seed testing and variety evaluation, as well as agronomic research, training and farm advice. Members-only variety demonstration tours will be available in the morning.