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

SEFARI TAKES TO THE EUROPEAN STAGE

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Images, top; The wine reception offering an opportunity to meet delegates on the first day; Bottom left: Ken in full flow at ‘best practice’ session; Bottom right: a key conversation with ‘futurista’ Wendy Schulz (USA/UK).

We weren’t altogether sure we were in the right conference as the chair announced that: “The next session is going to involve some role play.”

You might have thought that was the cue for a swift exit. And indeed it was, though only temporarily, and only to allow for the opportunity to discuss with some other conference attendees the intricacies of what “Technology Assessment” actually was.

This was up for discussion as we were representing SEFARI in Ireland at the 3rd European Technology Assessment Conference at University College Cork.

It didn’t escape our notice that in our roles with SEFARI as Sector Leads on Livestock (Philip Skuce) and Soil and Crops (Kenneth Loades) we are tasked with trying to demystify research for non-experts, but here we were, a little bamboozled ourselves. Despite reassurances from our director, Graeme, before we attended, neither of us were altogether sure what ‘Technology Assessment’ was!

It transpires that Technology Assessment represents all aspects of knowledge exchange around science, whether that be public engagement, or construction of responsible research agendas with citizens and stakeholders. It also includes the communication of the opportunities, and risks, of scientific research to those in government and parliament. So essentially what we at SEFARI are all about!

The conference was organised by a number of fellow Research Institutes in Europe and this is why we chose to go. There are many reasons why building further links with colleagues across Europe is important, and understanding best practice on how they get their messages across on complex science is just one of them. We were eager to learn and expand our networks.

The critical mass of Research Institutes involved with Technology Assessment seems to sit within mainland Europe, notably The Netherlands, Austria and Germany, but there were also representatives there from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) and the Open University. The conference explored many aspects of communicating science to different audiences, how different countries organise this, what works and what doesn’t, and how you go about measuring the impact of knowledge exchange.

We had the opportunity to blow our own trumpet too – we had a slot in the session on ‘best practice’ and took the opportunity to introduce SEFARI, followed by explanation and promotion of the newly-formed collective in an international context. What was clear was that SEFARI is unique in its role in delivering to so many audiences.

There was a series of plenaries, short talks and workshops from which we learned a lot – for example, one very interesting session was on ‘horizon scanning’ (i.e. what’s next?) which, from a SEFARI perspective, highlights the value of us assigning some funding for the exploration of national and global challenges through our Think Tank initiative.

While in Cork, we also took the opportunity to gatecrash attend the All-Island Agri-food Summit, which was taking place nearby. The organisers were very accommodating and allowed us to sit in on very informative lectures from Prof Chris Elliott, an acknowledged international expert on global food security and a similarly stimulating presentation from Dr Helena McMahon from Taste of Science, Ireland. We took advantage of the networking opportunity afterwards to introduce and promote the work of SEFARI on agri-food in Scotland, and to foster collaboration with our Irish counterparts.

The conference allowed us to highlight SEFARI work and understand how different countries approach similar challenges in technology assessment. We are already discussing topics raised at the conference within SEFARI and how we can implement some of the ideas we picked up. As the conference closed there was talk of the location for the next meeting, people were keen for Edinburgh………watch this space!

Dr Kenneth Loades and Dr Philip Skuce Graeme Cook ¦ Sector Leads ¦ SEFARI Gateway

 

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

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