UK plant science in crisis because of skills shortages

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food security

Lack of investment threatens the UK's leading position in plant science, warns a new report published today
Lack of investment threatens the UK's leading position in plant science, warns a new report published today
The UK’s world leading position in plant science is in jeopardy from funding shortages and a lack of stable investment in essential skills, a new report from the UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) released yesterday [January 28] warns.

In the report, UK Plant Science: Current status and future challenges​, the UKPSF calls for urgent action to ensure the UK can respond to the global challenges it faces. It warned that the increasing agricultural productivity required to meet increasing demand for food could be seriously threatened if this problem was not addressed urgently.

The UKPSF is a special interest group of the Society of Biology​, which aims to raise awareness of the importance of the UK plant science sector. The new report will be presented at a meeting last night at The Royal Society in London.

Professor Jim Beynon, chair of the UKPSF, said: “Plant science is a vital ingredient in solving some of our most serious problems, such as guaranteeing food security, coping with the threats from climate change, protecting biodiversity, and improving human health. Without critical investment in plant science research, its application and training of specialists, we simply won’t have the capacity to tackle these issues successfully.”

The report is based on a year of consultation, in which the UKPSF heard from more than 300 individuals and organisations from the UK plant science community. It calls for a doubling of investment in plant science, which currently receives less than 4% of public research funding, and urges government and industry to work together to achieve this.

‘Double UK plant science research funding’

The call to double UK plant science research funding has been backed by The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) to help deliver the step-change improvements in crop yields, climate resilience and disease resistance needed to meet future food security and sustainable development goals.

BSPB chairman Dr Richard Summers said: “This report recognises the critical role of the commercial plant breeding and seeds sector as the route to market for much of the plant science research taking place in UK research institutes and universities.

“In particular, it highlights the strategic need to support a functioning crop improvement pipeline, balancing long-term investment in basic and applied plant science to ensure that new knowledge and discoveries are translated into market-ready traits, germplasm and breeding tools.”

Beynon added: “UK plant science delivers enormous international prestige and influence despite being under-resourced. The global impact of UK plant science research is something of which we can be extremely proud, but continuation of our strong position is far from assured.

“In addition to increased investment, we need a more concerted approach to ensuring progress in both fundamental scientific understanding and its application for all our benefit. This has not been the case for more than a decade and the adverse impact on skills supply, infrastructure and innovation is now becoming apparent.”

‘Skills shortages’

Concerns over skills shortages of UK plant scientists were expressed by 96% of organisations surveyed. The report claimed the loss of some skills could be irreversible in less than 15 years if not addressed.

Dr Mimi Tanimoto, UKPSF executive officer, said: “Many plant scientists with vital specialist skills and experience are approaching retirement. Without succession planning, there is a real danger that the UK will have a skills shortage in some crucial areas. For example, we found that 62% of plant health specialists surveyed are aged 50 or over, yet only 4% are under 30 years old.”

“The major shortage of people able to diagnose the causes of plant diseases is particularly worrying. UK crops and forests face increasing threats from new pests as the recent outbreak of ash dieback has demonstrated.”

Educating and inspiring the next generation of plant scientists is identified in the report as a UK priority for plant science.

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