Agricultural R&D Needs New Vision, Says Rymer

The Commercial Farmers Group, farmers and academics supporting the development of the UK agricultural industry, recently reported that a decline in agricultural R&D is compromising the competitiveness of the UK agricultural industry. Here Tim Rymer, Chairman of JSR Genetics, responds to questions to give his view.
calendar icon 23 October 2008
clock icon 5 minute read

Q: In your experience, and from reading the above report, why do you feel that agricultural R&D in the UK is in decline?
A: I believe the UK's R&D chain has several missing tiers around Applied research and demonstration activity. Knowledge transfer (KT) activity, as a remedy, has its limitations in only following a one way linear R&D model and failing to apply reverse knowledge flow from the industry regarding its needs. At JSR we need feedback from our customers' performance to operate an effective Genetic Programme. A two-way process.

Tim Rymer, Chairman of JSR Genetics

Q: Do you feel that current consumer and market trends justify more, rather than less, agricultural R&D?
A: Absolutely, as ever the industry must maintain its innovative and competitive advantage. The demand for food products, and subsequently commodity prices, has risen over the last year. Also, food security as a buffer against unpredictable global food prices is becoming a government priority. UK agriculture is now key not only to the food needs but also the energy, water and environmental security of this country. At JSR we invest 10 per cent of our turnover each year in applied R&D, but this is not possible for most farming businesses.

Q: When do you believe the decline in agricultural R&D began?
A: From the mid-1980s, before which the UK was in the 'high-level technology club' (USA, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark), public sector support for agricultural R&D reduced. Agricultural productivity declined, leading to a 1% per annum reduction in food self sufficiency. By 1989, the UK was 12.5 per cent lower in food self-sufficiency than the other members of the 'high technology' club and in danger of being overtaken by Ireland, Italy, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg.

Q: To what do you attribute this decline in agricultural R&D?
A: The government's focus on institutes producing 'quality' research, i.e. scientific papers for major journals, rather than studies with real industrial impact. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) fails to realise that a copy of 'Nature' is unlikely to improve sow productivity. Organisations maintaining their industry contacts have had their core research funding reduced and some have had to close (Seale Hayne and Wye Colleges). In contrast to government thinking JSR have found the institutes involved in more Applied research better equipped to deliver workable solutions to the challenges of the industry. It is for this reason that JSR sponsor the pig unit at Harper Adams and are involved in research at Bishop Burton and Oatridge colleges. The UK's successful Olympics team benefited from Lottery funding. This was not for them to learn new techniques from scientific journals, but to have access to the best coaches, the best technology and the best facilities ie at the Applied level.

Q: What are the short term effects of these policies?
A: There's now a significant void between basic and 'blue-sky' science and the industry that ultimately it is supposed to serve. Such a vacuum is stifling the translation of technology into the industry but also innovation at the Applied level.

Q: Are there other long term effects of insufficient agricultural R&D?
A: What's deeply worrying is the loss of career opportunities in agricultural R&D. That's why we invited students to attend our Technical Conference and aim to maintain strong links with UK research establishments.

Q: Is the situation the same throughout the UK?
A: The outlook in Scotland and Northern Ireland is brighter due to the dedication of SAC and the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute. Both have maintained commitments to applied R&D, training and specialist advice. Through devolution Scotland has also become free from the DEFRA straightjacket.

Q: What are your recommendations for change?
A: Like any business you need a Strategy or business plan. We have one and this helps prioritise R&D expenditure because of the lead time. UK agriculture needs a 20 year plan based around competitiveness. From the Plan it is then much easier to prioritise what R&D will have the greatest effect on making agriculture more competitive. For example, it would then be very difficult not to press forward with Biotech crops.

Q: Finally, if you could offer specific advice at government level?
A: Research bodies, especially the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), need to remember that their mission statement includes Applied research and to 'provide trained scientists and engineers who meet the needs of users and beneficiaries'. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) needs to regard applied research as highly as that destined for high-impact journals. Additional funding needs to be developed from both public and private sources and the new Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board must help address the market failure of agricultural R&D. All this needs to happen - if the industry is to remain globally competitive.

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