Backing farming’s boffins

I wrote a few articles last year about agricultural research in the UK. I was looking at funding sources, the decline in spend on R&D and the kinds of things research institutes in Britain are looking at.

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, I’m a bit of a geek, so I got very interested in it. I would’ve probably done a few more articles had it not been for angry researchers ringing me afterwards complaining that I hadn’t written about them and accusing me of research institute bias. (Note to scientists: I love you all as much as each other. Unless you have mad scientist hair comme ca:


In which case I probably do love you a little bit more. Ssshhh, don’t tell the others.)

Anyway, from doing these articles I got chatting to some lovely people at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire and got invited to go along there on Friday to go and have a look at what they get up to.

Let me tell you, it’s bloomin’ awesome there. Did you know they have an experiment there that’s been running for more than 150 years? They’ve been trialling wheat since 1843:

Broadbalk experiment, Rothamsted

They have some amazing rooms to cultivate plants in too, allowing them to adjust the light to create really sunny conditions. I’d never really realised how those light boxes worked to alleviate seasonal affective disorder, but a couple of minutes in this room and I was grinning like an idiot, thinking that spending an hour in a trial field learning about Take-all disease was the best thing ever.

Happiness-inducing rooms aside, the day was made all the better by the lovely people who tried their best to turn an arable dunce into an expert in just a few hours. I’ve been briefed by so many scientists in the past who get caught up in their research and can’t put their findings into a simple form for idiots like me to understand. Research is all well and good, but if it can’t be made sense of by non-scientists and then applied to the real world then it’s pretty much a waste of time.

I was lucky that the scientists I spoke to did a brilliant job of explaining their work, but in situations where that isn’t the case it’s vital research institutions have great communications teams. Worryingly, budget cuts have meant those teams have been trimmed down in the past few years – Rothamsted now has a mere handful of people who have the job of promoting the research of their scientists, educating children and the public about the work the centre does and helping idiotic journos like me make sense of what’s going on.

DEFRA minister Caroline Spelman told me at the Cereals Event that she thinks agricultural R&D is vital, especially as she makes her decisions based on scientific evidence. Whether or not that means she won’t slash research institute funding in the face of budget cuts remains to be seen, but fingers crossed she has the good sense to see all aspects of places like Rothemsted are needed and can’t afford to be squeezed much more.

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