NIAB chief executive spells out future priorities

1 Dec 2008

When Dr Tina Barsby was appointed Chief Executive of NIAB in September 2008, she became the first female Chief Executive in the Institute’s 90-year history. A plant geneticist with extensive experience in plant biotechnology and applied plant science, Tina’s career has spanned both academic and commercial research in the agricultural crop sector, including 18 years with the French farmer-owned Groupe Limagrain. She joined NIAB in 2006 as Site Director. In this article, Tina explains her priorities and visions for NIAB’s future.
‘For 90 years, NIAB has played a key role in supporting the development of improved crop varieties, and transferring that knowledge into practical agriculture. The Institute is internationally recognised for its independence and expertise, and I am genuinely privileged to take on the role of Chief Executive.

I am also excited about the opportunities ahead. The past year or so has seen a much greater focus on agricultural research, driven by concerns over population growth, food security and climate change. In particular, there is renewed interest in the potential for advances in plant science to provide solutions to these challenges, for example through the development of higher-yielding, more climate resilient varieties of crops. NIAB is ideally placed to contribute to this process.  

With my appointment, the NIAB Board has signalled a desire for continuity and delivery.  The Institute is renowned as a centre of expertise in variety testing and evaluation, and is unique in bringing together within a single organisation the specialist knowledge, skills and facilities to monitor and assess the quality of agricultural crop varieties and seeds.

It will be absolutely vital to maintain those standards of excellence in NIAB’s core areas of operation, not only to safeguard existing business, but also to provide a strong platform to develop and expand our capabilities. As well as strengthening our crop testing and evaluation services, therefore, my ambition is to establish NIAB as a pre-eminent centre for pre-breeding and translational plant science, fit to address the challenges of 21st century agriculture.

The background to this vision lies in a major BBSRC review of UK crop science in 2004 led by Professor Chris Gilligan of Cambridge University. This review identified weaknesses in the translation of basic plant science into improved crop varieties. In particular, it highlighted the lack of an effective delivery pipeline to take the findings of underpinning research through to practical application by plant breeders.

NIAB’s vision is to re-connect that R&D pipeline by providing a dedicated pre-breeding platform capable of translating basic genetic discoveries into material suitable for use in commercial plant breeding programmes. Thanks to the generous support of the NIAB Trust, we have made significant progress towards that goal, with a £1.25m investment in laboratory facilities, equipment and growth rooms at our Cambridge site. Over the past two years, NIAB Research Director Andy Greenland has also recruited a team of 36 scientific staff, including three plant breeders. The building blocks are in place, and already a number of significant research contracts have been won by NIAB as part of the BBSRC’s Crop Science Initiative – both independently and with other research partners.     

In developing our plant breeding expertise, this initiative will position NIAB as the intellectual and operational hub of UK and international plant science in support of plant breeding for the public benefit.

The opportunities for innovation through plant science are virtually limitless.  For farmers, it means developing crop varieties with better yields, improved resistance to major pests and diseases, and with the ability to thrive in hostile environments.  Research taking place at NIAB in collaboration with the John Innes Centre is already showing promising signs that we may be able to increase wheat yields by up to 30% in sub-Saharan growing conditions by varying the crop’s flowering time.

Consumers can look forward to agricultural crops with improved nutritional qualities. An example from collaborative research I have been involved in includes efforts to help fight obesity by slowing down starch digestion in bread or pasta, both products derived from adapted strains of wheat developed by researchers at CSIRO in Australia.

NIAB has also embarked on a series of breeding projects aimed at deriving novel products from crops including those for pharmaceutical and biofuel uses as well as investigating possibilities for under-utilised or neglected crops. 

While NIAB is a registered charity it still needs to generate outside funding in order to grow its plant science activities. In the future NIAB needs to create and win new business, and to diversify its funding base.  Changes in NIAB’s internal business practices over recent years have placed NIAB in an excellent position to meet the demands and expectations of both private and public sector. 

I believe NIAB can look forward to a vibrant future – not only building on its core strengths in variety trialling and crop testing, but also taking a lead in translating basic crop science into innovative products of value to plant breeders, farmers and consumers.’ 

This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of Landmark, the journal of the NIAB Association. The NIAB Association is a unique membership service which aims to ensure that the Institute’s knowledge and expertise on crop science is shared with farmers, agronomists and industry stakeholders.

For further information about the NIAB Association see Link or contact Angus Hamilton.