In 2018, I sat down with senior scientists @ Rothamsted Research to discuss the vision behind the institute's research work. The result was this 12-strong series of videos, launched at the institute's major public engagement event, the
Rothamsted Festival of Ideas, in June 2018 (see below).
Molecular Plant Pathologist; Biointeractions and Crop Protection
Kim thinks the best solutions to fungal disease will involve genetics. She’s exploring strategies in which researchers select genes they know a fungus requires and “silence” these to stop it. “Future farmers will be skilled with technology with access to knowledge. They will really know their farm and which parts of fields produce well. Crops will be selected that are good for those positions.”
Plant Ecologist; Leader, Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems
In 1843, the founder of Rothamsted began testing different combinations of fertiliser on crops in fields that became our famous Long-Term Experiments. Now we’ve started a new one.
“We’ve set up a new experiment, called the Large-Scale Rotation Experiment, comparing simple rotations with a greater diversity of crops, and ploughing versus not disturbing the soil at all.”
Invertebrate Behavioural Ecologist; Biointeractions and Crop Protection
Sam imagines a future where lasers keep track of pests in a field, and the countryside looks very different, with perhaps a patchwork of flowers in fields, with crops in the middle.
“Laser technology will allow us to scan a whole field and tell the farmer: ‘in this place, you’ve got too many pests, but you’ve also got natural enemies and they will do the job for you’.”
Agronomist; Director and Chief Executive
Achim believes the big challenge until 2030 is to find solutions faster, in the way we produce, process and consume food. He sees fantastic challenges and opportunities for science.
“The UK needs to define what it wants its agriculture to be like, to achieve its food security, nutrition, health and environmental goals.”
Soil and Plant Scientist; Head, Sustainable Agriculture Sciences, Harpenden
Steve thinks farmers should be paid not only for delivering yield, but also for the nutrient content of their crops. He thinks this is a fascinating time to make a link from soil to diet to people.
“I'd like to see that what people are growing and what they’re consuming is good for you, and fulfils your dietary requirements automatically, so people don’t have to think ‘should I have a bit more zinc?’”
Plant Biotechnologist; Flagship Leader, Omega-3 Camelina Development
Johnathan works on a sustainable source of Omega-3 fish oils. He puts genes from marine microalgae into Camelina to produce a plant-based source, instead of relying on the oceans.
“The beauty of plants is that they are a green way of producing things, metaphorically and literally. There’s a real power in fusing synthetic biology, metabolic engineering and agriculture to do things in a more sustainable fashion.”
Entomologist; Biointeractions and Crop Protection
Gia identifies plants that seem resistant to insects, then looks at their chemistry and genetics to understand why. She takes those traits and breeds them into modern varieties, to help protect crops.
“By delivering resistance in the seed for farmers, they will not need to spray pesticides; so it’s much less likely that they will, and this will be a more sustainable way to protect our crops.”
Catchment Scientist/Hydrologist; Sustainable Agriculture Sciences
Adie works on the movement of water and pollutants on land. His work is like a complex puzzle. Decisions happen on individual farms, but what matters is connecting the jigsaw pieces to deliver the future picture of the landscape.
“The beautiful thing about our research is that it’s trying to identify real-world solutions and feed directly into government policy.”
Crop Geneticist; Director for Science Innovation, Engagement and Partnerships
Angela is introducing a “Lean” approach to science at Rothamsted, where researchers engage early with those who will use their work, such as farmers, and test their riskiest assumptions. “We’re trying to create a vibrant environment where people feel inspired to do really exciting science, and that exciting science has every opportunity to be useful to people.”
Livestock Scientist; Head, Sustainable Agriculture Sciences at North Wyke; Leader, Soil to Nutrition
Michael’s vision is to move towards more environmentally-friendly production of meat, with quality in terms of the nutrients that meat provides, and in how that meat is produced.
“We look at different farming techniques, at which is the most efficient at transferring nutrients, and report that to the farming community at a farm system level – as if it was their farm”
Insect Molecular Biologist; Head, Biointeractions and Crop Protection
Lin aims to understand how insects metabolise chemicals and then design very specific molecules that, in the long-term, target just the one pest you’re aiming at, with no side-effects.
“Climate change, legislation, politics, public opinion, these are all part of this argument; it isn’t just the underpinning science. And as scientists we often don’t think of that.”
Natural Products Chemist; Computational and Analytical Sciences
Jane’s team has been taking a fresh look at willow and the compounds that are in different willows to spot medicinal properties. Some show promising results against drug-resistant cancer cell lines.
“Plants are pretty clever. They can do reactions that if you tried to do in a lab might result in a mixture of different variants, but plants can do these reactions very specifically.”
Rothamsted Festival of Ideas 22-24 June 2018
Rothamsted “Festival of Ideas” took place in June 2018, to celebrate the institute’s 175th anniversary. This unprecedented public weekend, free and open to all, attracted more than 8000 festival-goers. There were 35 exhibits and six tours.
100 invited guests attended a preview on the Friday, including farmers, industry representatives, local and district officials. They heard short talks from students, and then took part in guided tours of the Festival exhibits. 180 students from local schools also attended the preview and were given an exclusive guided tours .
SCIENCE Matters, British Science Association, April, 2015
SCIENCE Matters was a series of short interviews I conducted with six science spokespeople from some of the UK’s major political parties, to investigate their priorities for science, how they might make a difference and most importantly, how their policies might affect you. The BSA believed that the conversations about science policy in the run-up to the General Election in 2015 were not asking the right questions of our politicians.
Directed and produced by Ben A Williams