Representing SEFARI at UK Parliament

Leaving the European Union could have major repercussions on a wide range of environmental and land use concerns within Scotland, and across the whole of the UK. Whilst some of these issues may seem complex, it is increasingly recognised that SEFARI contains a wealth of expertise which can contribute to such discussions. Of course our place is not to delve into the politics, but to use our research and expertise to provide an evidence-led platform for discussion.

To this end, I was recently invited to represent SEFARI at an event in the UK Parliament, organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST).

Davy's Blog

The meeting brought together a small number of recognised scientific experts to discuss such issues with the Houses of Commons and House of Lords committee’s subject advisers.  Representatives from the Environmental Audit; Environment, Food & Rural  Affairs; EU, Energy &Environment (Lords); European Scrutiny; Exiting the EU; Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs; Scottish Affairs; Welsh Affairs; and Women & Equalities committees were all present on the day, reflecting how integral environmental issues are to a wide range of parliamentary interests.

There are clearly a range of environmental concerns (such as addressing farmland biodiversity declines and tackling diffuse pollution at a catchment scale) which are common across the UK. But, my remit on the day was to highlight some of the additional environmental issues which were likely to be much a higher priority in Scotland, when compared to the rest of the UK.

I began by stressing that land managers have a huge role to play in helping to tackle environmental issues on behalf of wider society, and consequently it is essential that future mechanisms can appropriately support the different types of agriculture practised in Scotland. Leaving the European Union could present a real risk to the more vulnerable livestock systems in Scotland’s mountains and islands, especially those High Nature Value farming systems which cover over 40% of Scotland’s agricultural land and where the continuation of agricultural management is considered to be of high nature conservation importance. Any abandonment of farming in those areas could have a detrimental impact on the rural communities, habitats and wildlife species associated with them.

I also highlighted ambitious climate change targets as a major driver of Scotland’s environmental focus, with the Scottish Government proposing further ambitious revisions to our existing targets. Key targets include: obtaining 50% of heating, transport and electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030; to restore 250,000 ha of degraded peatlands by 2032; and a desire to markedly increase woodland cover in Scotland beyond the current 18% land cover. All these targets are aimed at reducing Scotland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of 1990 levels by 2050 and (in recent revisions) to 56% of 1990 levels by 2020.

I was able to make the point that all these environmental issues cannot be seen in isolation from each other, and that actions to mitigate for one issue have the potential to be beneficial or have adverse impacts for other issues. That’s why there is a pressing need to understand the systems underpinning, and trade-offs associated with, any land management practice or land use change. This means landscape scale policies and practices must be designed and implemented accordingly.

The meeting was also attended by:

Sasha Leigh, Head of Policy Partnerships, who provided an overview of NERC’s new Environmental Evidence for the Future initiative which will seek to define, prioritise and address the medium- to long-term knowledge gaps in the environmental science evidence base post-Brexit;

Andy Jordan, working on political aspects of Brexit at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who outlined a number of legislative and logistical challenges to dealing with environmental issues in the run-up to Brexit; and

Nick Wells, Centre of Ecology & Hydrology, who outlined the challenges and gaps in understanding associated with a range of cross-UK environmental issues, such as support for environmental management by farmers, achieving good ecological condition of waterbodies, addressing air pollution, ensuring biosecurity associated with plant and animal imports and maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in protected sites.

I have engaged quite a bit with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in recent years and provided evidence a number of times to what is now the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee.  It was very interesting to be able to highlight where the Scottish environmental perspective can be quite distinctive when viewed through a UK parliamentary lens.  It was therefore very pleasing to see that SEFARI was able to bring something different to the discussions.

The meeting was a great opportunity for SEFARI, one we hope to build on as we contribute where we can to discussions around Leaving the European Union.

Davy McCracken

Professor of Agricultural Ecology and Head of Hill & Mountain Research Centre Future Farming Systems

SEFARI at the Royal Highland Show 2017

The Royal Highland Show, taking place over 22nd-25th June at Ingliston Showground, is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s iconic events. Over the four days, the Show attracts nearly 200,000 visitors from across the world, each with a different background but with a common interest in all things farming and rural – just like us!

On Thursday and Friday the showground is a hive of meetings and networking activities; we certainly make the most of these opportunities and meet with MSPs from all parties, commercial leaders and farmers in particular.

Indeed, many seek us out to get informed about the latest research or gain that extra bit of advice; while our scientists and educators gain real insight into the issues people face every day and the time to think about the ways we can help even more.

By the weekend, the showground fills with families and we have great fun finding new ways to engage the young and old with science. This year is no exception. Why not join us to learn about human health by crawling through a giant gut, get inspired by forestry and take control of a forest harvester simulator or get some recipe tips while watching the Kilted Chef Craig Wilson and one of our scientists cook up a storm.

SEFARI will kick things off on Thursday morning with an event focusing on the role science plays in building growth in the rural economy. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Mr Fergus Ewing MSP will speak about how science and innovation can help the food and drink industry in particular.

The James Hutton Institute  marquee is located on avenue Q, where you can found out about crop science, food safety, land management, new farming technologies and much more.  On Thursday afternoon, they host a reception to celebrate the life and work of James Hutton – one of Scotland’s greatest ever scientists – while on Friday they showcase the Best Soil in Show prizes.

If you have the kids with you then you won’t need to walk far from there to find the RHET Discovery Centre. Here you can find out if you, or your kids, have the guts to crawl through a model of the intestines and find out more about the diverse bacteria that live there.

If all that crawling around makes you hungry then The Rowett Institute’s Dr Alex Johnstone will be joined by Kilted Chef Craig Wilson and together they will show you how to cook some delicious and nutritious food. This takes place on Friday between 11am-2pm in the President’s Marquee.

The Moredun Research Institute marquee can be found on 7th Avenue and has a history, heritage and futuristic theme. Visit them for advice or information about livestock health and new techniques for animal disease detection.  Scientists from EPIC will also be at hand to discuss biosecurity and its role in parasite control. On Friday at 4pm a new Biosecurity animation will be launched followed by a wine reception.

Close by on 7th avenue SRUC have a busy pavilion packed with activities for all ages and levels of knowledge about farming and rural affairs. This includes cutting edge farming technology and animal welfare research, how their research supports food & drink production and supply in Scotland and, more internationally, the challenges faced by Malawian farmers and how this compares with Scottish farming. If that’s not enough they will even let you loose on a forest harvester training simulator! Friday morning sees the return of their very popular Women in Agriculture event.

This is our first year attending the Show branded as SEFARI but it has long been a firm favourite in our calendars come rain or shine, so come see us!

Andrew Kelloe and Dr Michelle Wilson-Chalmers ¦ SEFARI Research and Communications Officers

 

Harnessing Data

There is no doubt we live in an ever evolving and developing world. That brings huge challenges, and only by understanding our world better can we make the best informed decisions across policy and commercial spheres, and in our own lives. Data sets, comprising the ultimate sources of the facts on which to base analyses, are fundamental to how we understand the world around us.

Never before has data been so important, whether in our daily lives, or in tackling the big issues of the day –food security, energy sources, population growth. However data can be difficult to manage, both in the sheer quantity now available, and how it is used.

Across SEFARI we are working on how we can better interpret and use data to improve science and help society, and this inspired how we styled our 2017 SEFARI Science for Life lecture. This series of annual lectures has been running for around ten years, with an aim to inspire current and future scientists to tackle key challenges.

This year’s lecture, hosted by Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland (BioSS), was titled ‘Harnessing All Available Data to Inform Agricultural Policy and Industry’. The lecture was given, to an audience of over 100 guests, colleagues and students, by Dr Linda Young on Tuesday 13th June 2017 at the Royal Society for Edinburgh.

Dr Young is the Chief Mathematical Statistician and Director of Research and Development, National Agricultural Statistics Service, US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dr Young said

“I’m delighted to have been given this opportunity to talk about our work in the USDA and to learn about how Scottish Government funded strategic research and translational activities are structured and delivered by the SEFARI collective.”

In her lecture Dr Linda Young described how techniques in the USA are integrating privately owned data with publicly available data (often collected by the USDA). Dr Young outlined how advanced statistical methodologies are used to consider the nature and complexities of the data sets themselves – and so improve their interpretation.

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At the heart of Dr Young’s work is a recognition that the data sets used will be incomplete and so will bring with them a degree of uncertainty (for example they may contain a particular bias one way or another). Although the challenges of collating, improving and analysing such data sets are substantial, addressing these challenges is enabling staff in the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to better inform government for policy development, as well as delivering great value to the farming community, and in guiding production and investment decisions.

In response to Linda’s presentation, BioSS’s Director, David Elston said “the approach Linda takes to her work is similar to the one we promote within BioSS. We aim to identify the quantitative issues at the heart of important problems then apply and if necessary adapt or sometimes even create rigorous methods of analysis that address these key issues.”

The lecture is linked to an annual event where representatives from the 300+ PhD students supervised across SEFARI describe their work, which collectively makes a very substantial contribution to the research capabilities and achievements of SEFARI.

Presentations delivered by twelve students showcased the breadth and depth of environment, food and agriculture research being undertaken within SEFARI.  The students described some of the vital scientific work being undertaken to address important issues including: reducing the incidence of obesity; protecting farm animals against diseases; and increasing the productivity of crop plants.  The student’s presentations and their responses to audience questions were graded, and prizes were awarded.

David Elston

The Beauty of Roots

Roots are rarely seen, but they are important and SEFARI research delves below the surface. Roots hold plants upright and soils in place. They acquire the water and nutrients plants need to grow and, thereby, underpin terrestrial food chains and the nutrition of humans and livestock. They can also be beautiful.

To illustrate the beauty and science of roots, SEFARI sponsored a collaboration (through our Responsive Opportunity Fund) between the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) artist in residence (Jean Duncan) and scientists at The James Hutton Institute (Philip White, Paula Pongrac, Lionel Dupuy, Glyn Bengough, Gladys Wright), Scotland’s Rural College (Ian Bingham), and the University of St Andrews (Jane Wishart) to develop an Exhibition combining living plants growing with their roots in full view, with scientific photographs, etchings and casts of roots and root structures.

Beauty of Roots Blog

Professor Philip White said “It was a wonderful experience collaborating with such creative colleagues. I think we produced an exhibition that not only illustrated, but also invigorated, our scientific studies and artistic endeavours.”

The Exhibition was held in the lobby of The Dalhousie Building, University of Dundee, in March 2017 and items from the Exhibition were subsequently displayed at the SEFARI Showcase event in the Garden Lobby at the Scottish Parliament and at Jean Duncan’s Open Studio Event in April.

The exhibitions have proved extremely popular with the public, and over 100 people so far have enjoyed both viewing the artwork and learning the science behind the beautiful roots. More pictures of the Exhibitions can be viewed on several other blogs; including The Living Field, Dundee University, Hertourage and Plantventurist.

The artist in residence Jean Duncan said “I’ve learned a great deal about the importance of roots in the past few months. The scientists in the project were extremely supportive in helping me produce my artworks and I felt privileged to have access to such a wealth of knowledge and experience, which was so willingly shared.”

There is also still plenty of time to view the artwork in person as well as it will feature at The Fascination of Plants Event at The University of Dundee Botanic Gardens on Sunday 21 May 2017; The Byre in the Botanics Programme, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews; The Scottish Natural Heritage Conference Centre at Battleby in August 2017; and The Lamb Gallery, University of Dundee, in March 2018 or if you have another venue you’d like to show the artwork at please just get in touch with us via info@sefari.scot

The SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Funds are designed to increase the visibility of the invaluable contributions the Scottish Government funded Strategic Research Programme makes towards sustainable economic growth and improving the lives of people in Scotland and beyond. The Fund supports new and collaborative knowledge exchange ideas which add value, must be inter-disciplinary, cross-institutional, be timely, and have clear stakeholder involvement, show creativity and how they can have an impact.

Professor Philip White

On SEFARI to the Emerald Isle

SEFARI has a crucial role in ensuring that the right research and expertise gets to the right people, at the right time and in the right format. This model has to deliver for policy makers, commercial interests and individuals alike – such challenges are shared the world over in the space between research and decision taking. SEFARI also has a role to better internationalise Scottish Government funded research on environment, food, agriculture and land.

While that means developing ways to take our messages beyond Scotland, it also opens up the opportunity for us to learn from others. This week we have a great example of an event which helps in both those challenges. Two key SEFARI staff, Dr Kenneth Loades, and Dr Philip Skuce are heading to Cork, Ireland, for the latest in a series of high-profile events exploring how the transformative power of science and technology can be better aligned to meet societal challenges, and how research can better underpin policymaking.

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Dr Loades, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Soils and Crops, and Dr Skuce, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Livestock, are taking our own experiences to the table by using examples of interaction with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. Dr Loades said “This conference gives us a platform to show what Scottish research on environment, food, agriculture and land can offer, but also gives us the chance to learn from others trying to improve how science can better underpin policymaking and scrutiny”.

The 3rd European Technology Assessment Conference will explore key issues such as:

  • Health, ageing and wellbeing;
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy;
  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;
  • Smart, green and integrated transport;
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

The conference is to be attended by a rich variety of those who carry out research in these areas, those who act as knowledge brokers, and those who require accurate and reliable research and data. This includes parliaments, governments, research institutes, universities and academies from across Europe and beyond. Dr Skuce said “We expect to learn valuable lessons on how others meet the challenges of ensuring policy makers and those with scrutiny roles have the best access to the right information and expertise. We will also learn how others measure the impact of these types of activity – all with a view to putting new ideas into practice at home”.

This trip delivers against another agenda too, perhaps one more traditionally aligned to the research areas delivered by SEFARI – the same venue, University College Cork, is also hosting an All Island Agri-Food Summit this presents the opportunity to take Scotland’s message to an Irish audience, and to learn about challenges and opportunities in the Irish context.

Graeme Cook ¦ Director ¦ SEFARI Gateway

The science behind the food we eat

Since our launch event on 29 March 2017 we’ve been busy delivering against our aspirations for SEFARI research to have a real and positive impact on individual lives – the idea underpinning our strapline of Leading Ideas for Better Lives.

All of the Institutes who make up SEFARI contributed to the Edinburgh International Science Festival through public engagement on food and health research. The programme ran in the John Hope Gateway Building at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh during early April.

Scotland’s Rural College kicked off the programme by working with young scientists (and their parents) to explore how the community of critters and microbes that live in healthy soil underpin our food production. The entire SEFARI programme ran for 10 days and around 3,000 people, both young and old, enjoyed the experiences of real live scientists helping them explore issues and think differently about their world. IMG_8078.JPG

The James Hutton Institute explored the science behind barley production, and the trials of life for the plants we call weeds, but are actually an important part of the farmland habitat. Crop plant diversity, and the issues around accessing nutritious food in the future, were explored by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. A journey through a giant model gut was the highlight of The Rowett Institute  focus on the importance of gut microbes to our health. A computer interactive developed by BioSS helped people to design healthy, affordable and sustainable diets. The programme was closed by the Moredun Institute giving their ‘Disease Detectives’ the task of diagnosing animal patients, in the fight to keep farm animals, and us, safe and healthy.

The importance of learning by doing cannot be underestimated, and we hope that those who took part, or observed, took something away to influence their own decision making, or took away material to start a conversation with family, friends or colleagues.

By the way, did you know the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh actually has three other gardens in Scotland? They are: Dawyck Botanic Garden near Peebles, Benmore Botanic Garden near Dunoon and Logan Botanic Garden near Stranraer – check them out if you are nearby.

Dr Max Coleman | Science Communicator | Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh