How to keep ahead of the herd

February 26, 1999

England is the world leader in agricultural research but how much longer will it last? asks Peter Kettlewell

A study of the international impact of research in different countries was recently published in the science journal Nature. England led the world in agricultural research from 1988 to 1996, but now this position is under threat.

The study, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, compared research in 47 subjects, from accountancy to veterinary science, for seven countries - USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and England. Citation analysis was used to measure the impact of research, based on the number of times each paper was referred to by others.

Not surprisingly the USA, arguably the most technologically developed country in the world, dominates the league table, coming top in 34 subjects. This reflects the massive investment the USA makes in R&D. England comes second in the list with agriculture one of only five subjects in which we lead the world. In fact agricultural research is England's most successful subject after pharmacology/pharmacy.

But now our lead position is at risk. Even towards the end of the survey period there was a decreasing emphasis on agricultural research in Britain.Some of the changes are subtle, involving dropping the word agriculture. For example, in the mid 1990's the government-funded Agricultural and Food Research Council changed its name to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Also there are universities where departments of agriculture have been subsumed into biological schools.

Government spending on agricultural research has been cut, with obvious consequences for the future. BBSRC staff have been exhorted to acquire funding from industry but this tends to be for short-term problem solving rather than longer-term strategic research. As a consequence, many more scientists are now on short-term contracts; 43 per cent of BBSRC science staff are on contracts ranging from six months to five years. This threatens research continuity, and the lack of a recognisable career structure is forcing research staff to look to other employment.

Some changes are the result of the drive to privatisation in recent years.Researchers in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) research and advisory service are now partly driven by the imperative of bringing in funding to keep their jobs.

More dramatic is the abandonment of whole schemes for funding research. MAFF has terminated the Postgraduate Agricultural Studentship Scheme for training agricultural researchers, (which I was a recipient of years ago). This begs the question - how will future generations of researchers be trained?

We must invest in the future's agricultural researchers. Either MAFF should restore its training scheme or the BBSRC could take over this role. However, it is vital that all areas of agricultural research are represented, not just the molecular sciences which currently dominate the field.

Research funders and universities need to give more thought to ensuring continuity of research funding instead of awarding a series of short-term grants and contracts. The Research Concordat and Research Careers Initiative is a good start, but more progress is needed.

As the millennium draws to a close, we must re-examine our approach to agricultural research. If we do not we risk losing our number one position.

Peter Kettlewell is Reader in crop physiology at Harper Adams University College.

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