Olga Wojtas describes how a unique blend of teaching, research and consultancy makes the Scottish Agricultural College indispensable to farmers.
The Scottish Agricultural College is one of the United Kingdom's largest specialist centres for research, with an annual research budget of more than Pounds 12 million.
It is a unique higher education institution, a private company set up by Scotland's three regional agricultural colleges, which merged in 1990. It has a grant from the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department rather than from the higher education funding council. It is generally listed alongside the new universities, but compares itself with Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities with which it has close teaching and research links. And it blends teaching, research and consultancy, which are the remit of separate institutions south of the border.
"We are totally different from almost everything except an American land grant university. I guess we come from exactly the same roots in the late 19th century, with the view of the founding fathers that research, education and advice to the rural community should be in the same organisation,'' says David Atkinson, SAC's vice-principal for research.
"Like an American land grant university we have relatively few staff who carry out a single function. We think it's very important that people are doing both research and consultancy, or research and education, or education and consultancy.'' Consultancy does not come a poor third in SAC's priorities: it brings in Pounds 11.5 million a year. Two-thirds of Scottish farmers are SAC customers at any given time and over five years 85 per cent of them will have sought its help.
The college's importance to the Scottish farming community is neatly underlined by the tale of the Higher National Certificate students who were asked how they would assess the fertiliser requirements of a crop of oil seed rape following a cereal crop. Half the class replied, in all seriousness, that they would consult their local SAC adviser.
The college has 23 local farm and rural business advisory offices around the country, whose staff are finding that while much of the work comes from the farming industry, their advice is increasingly related to business management rather than to technical matters.
"With the pressure on farming, families are looking at whether there are other things they can do in the same place, and the most obvious one is bed and breakfast, letting out spare rooms in a farmhouse that is bigger than the family needs,'' says Professor Atkinson.
"Or you get a dairy business that wants to know if there is something special it can do in terms of yoghurts or flavoured milks. We can help someone who wants to know whether there's any point in developing clay-pigeon shoots, and have a look at their business plan. These are all added-value things that allow you to stay in the community where you want to be, but improve your income and the income of your community.'' The college has a succinct mission statement: to enhance the sustainability of rural areas and communities, and the viability of the industries on which they depend.
"That doesn't say anything about research or consultancy or education, but all of these are critical in terms of sustainability and viability,'' says Professor Atkinson.
As well as its three main sites in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Auchincruive near Ayr, SAC also has eight veterinary centres, seven research farms and estates, and a commercial arm, Cosar, which promotes consultancy south of the border. About a third of SAC's funds come from outside Scotland, and it has projects in other countries, including Kazakstan, Vietnam, Poland, Greece and Italy.
"We are an international organisation based in Scotland,'' says Professor Atkinson.
"If you look at the size of the Scottish economy in relation to the rural sector, that must place a limit on the scope of an organisation like this, and we need to be able to work beyond the Scottish border. We get a lot of money from institutions such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and from Europe, and we therefore feel an obligation to extend information and technology beyond Scotland.'' Recent projects include the physiological basis of lameness in dairy cattle, renewable energies for rural areas, improving the welfare of hens in cages, using composted organic waste in horticulture and estimating the demand for organic fruit and vegetables.
But the college has narrowed its range of interests over the past decade for financial reasons. Decisions were based on whether it had the resources to be effective, whether there was a potential income stream and a gap in the market, and whether key staff were championing the area. For example, it has run down its research into beef cattle to concentrate on dairy cattle, in part because it could see funds coming in from the Milk Development Council, while it faced strong competition from England for work with beef cattle.
Professor Atkinson does not believe this has hindered BSE research. "We've had a long-term interest in scrapie, and I would say we've made a lot of progress there, but I don't think if we'd continued with a major beef programme that we would have cracked BSE."
Refining its research interests has not prevented SAC from innovating, and one of its most recent developments is a move into molecular biology. "We see ourselves as having the ability to apply modern molecular techniques as they come out of "purer" labs to practical agricultural problems,'' Professor Atkinson says.
"For example, if you look at heather moorland, there are bits that grow well and bits that don't survive well. We're looking to see whether this is due to genetic differences rather than saying it must be because of overgrazing. Until we had modern molecular techniques, we couldn't do that.'' The intertwining of research, education and consultancy is matched by an interdisciplinary approach that brings together biological scientists and social scientists. The college believes it has a ten-year headstart on institutions trying to devise ways of promoting interdisciplinary projects.
"At the end of the day, most people will find it easier to talk to a fellow dairy cow geneticist than to a rural sociologist, because they understand the problems in the same way. But the role of the organisation is to provide a framework that tells staff that we believe interdisciplinary work is important,'' says Professor Atkinson.
SAC sells a significant proportion of its research proposals to its major funder, SOAEFD, on the basis of its interdisciplinary approach, and staff know these are likely to be viewed particularly favourably by management.
Since the 1990 merger, there are no longer joint appointments with the partner universities, although close links remain. But Professor Atkinson is happy SAC has not come under the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which he believes would have difficulty in dealing with SAC's consultancy role. "To be effective, we have to be a single organisation. The bits have got to interact, otherwise we might as well be an agricultural college, a research institute and a consultancy organisation,'' he says.
"There is a place for specialist institutions. We would say we're successful because we're focused on the rural sector. It's much clearer to us where we fit in the world, and we don't have the distractions of wondering whether it would help if we wandered off into liberal arts or modern history.
"We believe in monotechnics. But there's always a risk that somebody feels they have to tidy up the system rather than rejoicing in diversity."