Universities join forces to boost impact of agricultural research

Researchers from the University of Leeds have joined 15 universities to produce a new agriculture research strategy.

The strategy, which has been launched today (Thursday 18 May) at the Royal Agricultural University’s Swindon, explains how the network is joining up their research to respond to the major challenges and changes facing agriculture.

These plans include working with farming networks to get an up-to-date, sector-wide picture of research priorities, coordinating how they share evidence, and training the next generation of scientists with the skills to research complex, real-world farming systems.

This is the first time that agricultural research providers have joined up on this scale, and is the outcome of a year-long investigation into industry and policy priorities, current research activities, and the sector’s strengths and weaknesses.

While UK science is seen as world-leading, farmers and other stakeholders have longstanding concerns about the impact of publicly-funded agricultural research. The strategy therefore sets out to prioritise wisely, avoid duplication, and boost the practical impact and public value of research.

Professor Stefan Kepinski, Head of School of Biology and Associate Director for the Global Food and Environment Institute at University of Leeds said:

“To meet the challenges of sustainable, secure, and resilient food production, we must continue to work with partners to drive discovery and innovation through research. Whilst interdisciplinary initiatives, such as our world-leading smart farm, are already harnessing innovative technologies to catalyse transformative research, by working together in this more collaborative and coordinated way, we can maximise synergy, value for money, and crucially, the speed with which real-world impact for UK and global agriculture can be achieved.”

Professor Tom MacMillan, Elizabeth Creak Chair in Rural Policy & Strategy at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) who is the lead author of the report, said: “A good deal of time, money and thought goes into agricultural research, but is it achieving as much as it should? This strategy is about focusing that effort to make it more useful on the ground at a time when farmers and the environment are under huge pressure.

“This kind of joined-up working has proved tricky over the years because, rightly, research is independent and decentralised. What I hope is refreshing about this strategy is that the universities have recognised we have a shared responsibility and we’re teaming up and taking the initiative where we can.”

Speaking at the launch, Executive Chair of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Melanie Welham, said: “Research and innovation can provide solutions to many of the global challenges we face today. To realise its full potential, we need a research and innovation system that is connected and engaged, allowing us to maximise opportunities for new discoveries and ways to deliver impact. The commitments and actions set out within the AUC Joint Research Strategy reflect these ambitions and are very much welcomed by BBSRC.”

NFU President Minette Batters welcomed the report saying: “As the bedrock of the food system, farmers and growers feel a great responsibility to be part of the solution. We see science and research playing a vital role in this: providing on-farm decision makers with robust evidence of what works; informing and analysing regulation; and ensuring that change leads to genuine and sustainable benefits for all. I’m very pleased that the leading universities also recognise their responsibilities and the opportunities to increase their value to farming through a coordinated research strategy.”

Professor Sir Charles Godfray, Oxford University, chaired the AUC’s Strategy Project Advisory Group. He said: “It is to the great credit of the network of universities with expertise in agriculture that they have come together to form the Agricultural Universities Council (AUC) and to examine critically how research in this area needs to evolve and strengthen. It is a highly timely initiative.

“The UK Government recently published a Science and Technology Framework with a ten-point plan to make the UK a Science and Technology Superpower.  This report, and future work planned by the AUC, will help ensure that agricultural research, interpreted broadly, is part of this vision.”

Henry Dimbleby, who led the National Food Strategy (2020), and is a recent lead non-executive board member at Defra, said: “It is so welcome to see scientists join forces like this. This is the kind of strategic leadership called for by the deep and urgent crises in our food and farming.”