The second decade of the last century was an important decade for food research with the setting up of six research institutes focusing on specific sectors such as dairying (National Institute for Research in Dairying) plant breeding (Welsh Plant Breeding Institute) and human nutrition (Rowett Research Institute).
The second decade of this century is witnessing a resurgence of interest in food research, but this time with a difference. Today, the research objectives are not so much about maximising production of food, but producing nutritious food while minimising negative impacts on the environment, including limiting greenhouse-gas emissions.
Addressing these challenges requires a broad range of skills, both in conducting the research, but also in prioritising the problems and defining funding strategies.
Personally, I have long been keen on collaboration and working across disciplines and thus I genuinely welcome the new Global Food Security partnership of funders which was launched on 11 March. I consider such joint working to be an essential part of meeting our responsibility, as scientists, to provide the evidence to enable society to make informed choices on what to eat.
We already have labelling to tell us whether a particular purchase is healthy or not; the information on the labels being informed by years of research on nutrition and physiology (funded, for example, by the Food Standards Agency). Consumers now also want to know what impact the production of a specific product has had on the environment.
We have to catch up quickly. By working together, scientists and science funders can build upon past experience to achieve a desired outcome more rapidly.
Another example lies in the area of plant and animal health. Climate change is predicted to increase the risks of severe negative economic impacts being caused by some diseases. Both the assessments of risks, and diagnosis at the molecular level, have many similarities between the plant and animal sectors yet often that knowledge has not been exchanged.
Alternatively, working in partnership inspires the rewriting of objectives which often provides new insights into the intransigent problems of the past, again learning from best practice in other disciplines.
Another aspect of this partnership is the fostering of collaboration between funders who focus on ‘upstream’ (or more basic) research, such as the Research Councils, and those charged with the responsibility for ensuring that research outputs have impact (e.g. government departments such as Defra). Development, together of strategic objectives, ensures that the outputs from upstream research do not just ‘sit on a shelf’ as a peer-reviewed paper, but are effectively used to deliver impact and benefit societies.
Enhancing our ability as a group of public sector funders to deliver both excellence in science, and a useful and measurable impact on society, is both challenging and exciting. I have high hopes that the Global Food Security partnership will inspire the science community to help us achieve our goals.
About Professor Maggie Gill
Maggie Gill is (since 2006) the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser for Rural Affairs and the Environment for 80% of her time and works for DFID-Research, as part of the Food Team for the remaining 20%, on secondment from the University of Aberdeen (DFID is the UK Government’s Department for International Development.).
Maggie’s career has included both research and research management starting with livestock production and moving on to the interface between agriculture and the environment and natural resource management issues. Her research has included collaboration with scientists in Australasia, North America and a number of developing countries.
She worked for the Grassland Research Institute (which evolved into IGER) for 13 years before moving into international development in 1989. After 11 years of research, research management and ultimately as Chief Executive of Natural Resources International Ltd. (1996-2000), a company which was ‘spun out’ of the privatisation of the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), an Executive Agency of the Overseas Development Administration, Maggie returned to Scotland as Chief Executive and Director of Research at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen (2000-2006).
Professor Maggie Gill, Director Rural & Environment Research and Analysis, The Scottish Government