Visualising Complexity

Complex, multidimensional, interconnected data can be extremely difficult to communicate effectively even using classic visualisation tools. Gone are the days when we can just draw a straight line through a 2D scatter graph. Take a look our visualization of the network of researchers in the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme (SRP) as an illustration of just how complicated things can get! The image shows the complex connections between the researchers involved in the SRP (the bigger the node or circle – the bigger the level of interaction and lines represent linkages).

Directory or Expertise

The SRP is a vast programme of research involving the work of hundreds of researchers across a variety of topics such as Natural Assets, Productive and Sustainable Land Management and Rural Economies, and Food, Health and Wellbeing. Recognising the complexity involved we began developing a directory of expertise where we hope to make the linkages between the science and scientists much easier to navigate for us all. Hopefully this kind of information will become more readily accessible via the SEFARI web-site next year, but until then a little more information can also be found in the project’s blog.

The Directory of Expertise is only one example of visualising complex data we and our colleagues regularly deal with though. There are actually many teams working across SEFARI on ways to communicate a variety of complex data, and we recognized we all could benefit by sharing our knowledge and practice more widely. Therefore, we decided to apply to the SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Fund to create a collaborative community in this important area, and we were delighted that our idea to develop a workshop on ‘Imaginative Tools for Visualizing Complexity’ was awarded funding in September 2017.

The Responsive Opportunity Fund is designed to support new and collaborative knowledge exchange ideas which enhance impact and add value. Projects need to be inter-disciplinary, cross-institutional, show creativity and demonstrate how they will improve the communication of our work.

The workshop has the goals of:

  • establishing a network – enabling people from across SEFARI to get to know each other’s work better,
  • exposing participants to new approaches and tools to visualizing data,
  • providing an opportunity to have a go at using the approaches and tools,
  • and increasing awareness of diversity and accessibility issues when preparing visualizations.

Whether the data are challenging to visualize and communicate, or whether there are methods and approaches to visualization in a particular area of research that could be used more widely, then this network is designed to help and our ideas are already gaining interest both within and external to SEFARI.

The workshop is planned for 6th February 2018 with guest speakers Sophie Warnes (Office for National Statistics) and Prof Jessie Kennedy (Edinburgh Napier University) and we’ll be sure to blog again later to let you know how the event went, but in the meantime and for more specific information about this activity please follow our project blog.

Dr Gary Polhill & Dr Paul Shaw (The James Hutton Institute), Dr Mike Spencer & Joshua Bird (Scotland’s Rural College), Bram Boskamp (Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland).


Food Matters go Live!

This week SEFARI is heading down south to London to take part in the UK’s only food and drink cross-sector event, called Food Matters Live, which is taking place from 21st-23rd November 2017 at London’s ExCeL. The free to attend event involves around 800 organisations and brings together a wide range of people and companies: food producers and retailers from small and medium enterprises to multi-nationals, UK and international-agencies; non-governmental organizations, research funders, scientists, nutritionists, students, politicians, food campaigners and chefs. Essentially, if you have even a remote interest in food there will be something there for you!


Food and Drink is a hugely important sector for Scotland and the UK economy, generating a turnover of £14.4 billion and £5.3 billion of GVA (gross value added) for the Scottish economy in 2014 alone. This sector not only has an impact on Scotland’s economy but food production can also has a significant influence on our environment, health and society and these are all areas that SEFARI research aims to a make a difference.

SEFARI represents a unique, long term sustained and globally distinctive multi and inter-disciplinary research collaboration and which delivers the Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme (SRP, 2016-2021) for food, agriculture, environment, land use and rural communities; for 2016 -2017 alone this is a £34.2million investment in strategic research.

At SEFARI, through the SRP and research underpinned by it, we link research on primary agriculture and the environment to the food we eat through new approaches for agricultural production, investigating food supply chains, new foods and re-formulation, nutrition at all ages and on to the issues faced in achieving food accessibility and affordability within a population severely challenged by diets linked with ill health. A recent economic impact assessment of our previous SRP research has shown that even over a short period of time our work is delivering benefits along the whole food chain.

Economically, environmentally sustainable agriculture is critical to a thriving food and drink sector and is vital for securing access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. Examples of where we have and continue to make a difference through our research include:

  • Long term sustained crop research working to improve yield, disease resistance and reduce the environmental impact of production, e.g. our barley and potato research.
  • Improved livestock genetic selection e.g. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance welfare.
  • Helped to develop Scotland’s Beef Efficiency Scheme, by working with ClimateXChange.
  • Major breakthroughs in livestock disease; including the first vaccine in the world for a worm parasite of sheep and, working with EPIC (the Centre of Expertise on Animal Disease Outbreaks), our work has been central on delivering to the industry-led scheme to eradicate Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) in Scotland.

Moving from the farm towards the consumer, our research is establishing how diets and food influence our health at an individual and societal level. Pioneering work involving our scientists includes discovering how the type of food we consume can help weight management and improve health as a key approach to tackling the health burden of obesity. Dietary fibre is now acknowledged as a key factor in this approach and our ground-breaking research has shown that the microbes in the gut respond differently to the type of fibre eaten, opening up new opportunities to provide health benefits to the public.

We are also identifying natural bioactivities (chemicals that have a biological effect) within plants and their extracts, including using fruit and vegetable extracts (applicable to vegetable waste use) that could help in shelf-life preservation (antioxidants) and, by developing a unique understanding of how bioactives are available and used by the body, for delivering potential health benefits (e.g. in regulating inflammation or management of type 2 diabetes).

Critically, nutritional requirements vary and our research is examining how nutrition at all ages plays an important role in shaping health, e.g. by looking at the impact of diet during pregnancy and supporting the development of food products that are more appropriate for an older population.

Such understanding offers a huge potential for better food produce and new food ranges e.g. the “Fuller Longer” food range as developed by Marks & Spencer with expert input from our scientists and based on understanding gained from their long term strategic research and work underpinned by it. Also a detailed understanding of the nutritional and wider chemical content of plants linked to how our bodies use these is providing unique opportunities to inform crop breeding approaches e.g. in our research on learning from wild and underutilised plants.

In seeking to effect better relationships with food and the adoption of healthier lifestyles, understanding food-choice behaviours are complex but also offer opportunities to effect dietary change. Our latest socioeconomic analysis is working to better understand influences on food choice, consumer attitudes and beliefs; preferences regarding food authenticity and origin; assessing how consumers consider, balance and trade-off different preference criteria when purchasing foods; developing ways to measure and communicate healthy and environmentally sustainable diets to consumers; and examining household attitudes and behaviour on food waste.

In addition, by understanding the structure and effectiveness of short food supply networks, which connect Scottish manufacturers and consumers, we can aid in promoting rural development and sustainable, resilient communities.

Finally, here at SEFARI we also have access to an array of resources, facilities and collections which are extensive and nationally important e.g. the National Soils Archive, crop collections, research farms, livestock facilities and a state of the art Human Nutrition Unit to name only a few.

Ultimately we are working to ensure our research reaches those whom can benefit from it and our close long term partnerships with policy, farming, the food and drink sector, education and the public is vital to informing our work, enabling us to provide advice and putting our research in to practice, and this is why we go to events like Food Matters Live.

Therefore if you’d like to learn more and are interested in food and drink (and well who isn’t!) do come and visit us at stand 681. As well as discussing our latest research with you we are also excited to be piloting an innovative new project, called ‘My Food Our World’, which is a series of short films showcasing how our research is contributing to Scotland’s Good Food Nation bill and you will also find our scientists presenting at talks throughout the whole event too.

Dr Charles Bestwick & Dr Michelle Wilson-Chalmers.


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


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.

Cork 4.jpg

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