Iain Gordon reflects on a unique opportunity for Scottish science and enterprise as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

Iain Gordon

On 1 April 2011 Scotland became home to a brand new scientific research centre. The James Hutton Institute aims to be one of the world’s leading research institutes on land, crops, water and the environment and is the biggest, multi-disciplinary centre of its type in the UK.

Fittingly, its name has been taken from one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Hutton (1726-97). Hutton ranks as one of Scotland’s greatest scientists: a polymath, observer and interpreter of nature. He is regarded as the founder of modern geology and was also an enthusiastic experimental farmer. 

I am sure that the creation of The James Hutton Institute will have helped complete his return to prominence as a pioneering scientist and thinker – he recently featured in BBC’s Men of Rock documentary series.

But there is another reason why James Hutton as a figurehead is singularly appropriate. He was one of the first scientists to understand the concept of a living planet: ecosystems of incredible diversity which are deeply interconnected through sharing common resources. It probably would not surprise Hutton that the huge scientific and industrial advances of his life would have consequences for the well-being of all that makes up the living planet.

This was the subject of a UK Government report that outlined some worrying trends that are likely to impact on all of us. The Foresight report on Global Food and Farming Futures took two years to produce and involved leading scientists from 35 countries including Scotland. The alarming conclusion was that we have about 20 years to deliver something of the order of 40% more food, 30% more fresh water and 50% more energy to sustain a human population of something like 8.3 billion people without destroying the environment in the process.

We two are one

To tackle these problems, The James Hutton Institute has been created by two established scientific organisations active for many decades in the areas of food supply, land use, water and ecosystems: the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) in Invergowrie, Dundee. 

Researchers at the Macaulay have a long track record in land management particularly with respect to the Scottish hills and uplands. They are responsible for the soil and peat surveys of Scotland and the Land Capability for Agriculture classification is the official agricultural classification system widely used in Scotland. They have also been active in advising the Scottish Government on major land use issues including reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, and have provided major contributions to the recent Pack Inquiry into future support for agriculture in Scotland and the development of the draft Land Use Strategy for Scotland.

Products developed at SCRI are familiar names on supermarket shelves. They include popular raspberry varieties such as Glen Ample and Glen Lyon; potato varieties including Lady Balfour, Anya, Vales Sovereign, Vales Emerald and Mayan Gold. SCRI’s brassicas (swedes, turnips, kale etc.) dominate the UK market, and 50% of the world’s blackcurrant crop was developed at the Invergowrie site. Food security research is underway to help crops survive a changing climate both here and abroad; scientists from both institutes have been active in projects aimed at helping communities and farmers around the world.

Greater than the sum of the parts

So why bring the two together? I could answer by saying why keep them apart. The two institutes can combine various scientific and management interests in arable and livestock agriculture, lowlands and uplands, farming and forestry, wildlife and environment, people and policy.

A large part of the work of the two centres is funded by the Scottish Government as part of its rural and environmental research strategy, and scientists from both organisations were already collaborating on some of the government-supported work programmes. The new James Hutton Institute will enable us to work together and serve our research customers in Scotland, the UK and Europe more effectively. 

For example, perhaps one of the most exciting challenges for the new institute is likely to be working with partner organisations to find ways of empowering rural communities, not just in Scotland, but around the world. The James Hutton Institute has active links and partnerships with more than 60 countries and has already been leading projects in Africa to help rural communities improve crop yields and ensure healthy seed stocks. We have also been active with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to produce a series of briefing papers: for example to raise the profile of the ecosystems approach in tackling not just climate change mitigation and adaptation, but also poverty alleviation, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity loss and many other environmental issues.

It certainly is not just about farming, forestry and livestock: we are equally keen to use our science to help provide a vibrant countryside that everyone can enjoy for living and recreational space. Science at The James Hutton Institute will also be used to study energy use and renewables, landscape planning and human health. We have plenty of evidence that our science will have a measurable and very positive economic impact in Scotland and further afield.

Let’s go back to that great son of Scotland, James Hutton. He was a man ahead of his time, as evidenced by his pre-Darwinian thoughts on natural selection processes. He looked at his surroundings, and the interactions of man and the earth, in a new way. He kept asking questions and when nobody had any answers, he used his powers of observation and analysis to suggest his own answers. 

Our new, Scottish-based but global-thinking institute will be proud to bear his name. We will also aspire to emulate his inquiring mind, his enthusiasm and his willingness to share knowledge and seek evidence: looking out and looking forward.

About Iain Gordon

Iain, who holds both British and Australian nationality, returned to Scotland to take up the post of Chief Executive of The James Hutton Institute after eight years working with CSIRO – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – in Canberra. Professor Gordon is native to Aberdeenshire and graduated with a Zoology honours degree from the University of Aberdeen; he was awarded his PhD by the University of Cambridge. He worked at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen, leading the Ecology Group, before moving to Australia in 2003.

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