July Director’s message

I have spent most of July in the UK and Europe, visiting a range of institutions that conduct research & development (R&D) targeting productivity growth in crops. This included a visit to BARN4, an agri-tech incubator in Cambridge, UK.  BARN4 provides a place for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to interact with researchers from National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the wider Cambridge community. In doing so, it helps to ensure that NIAB stays at the forefront of technology development in areas relevant to the cropping sector. Given the similar missions of CEAT and BARN4, it is natural that we seek to work together to strengthen research-industry links and to provide opportunities for SMEs within our respective hubs to connect with new partners and markets.  For this reason, I will be working with the CEO of BARN4, Dr Michael Gifford, to host an online event in September for SMEs from the CEAT Innovation Hub and BARN4 to meet each other and learn about the wider innovation ecosystem in Canberra and Cambridge. Please keep an eye out for details of the event in the coming weeks. 

One advantage of travelling is the time it gives you to read reports and literature; two interesting reports I read while en route deal with R&D investment in the agricultural sector. 

The first was a recent report by Kelly Nelson and Keith Fuglie from the Economic Research Service (ERS) at the USA Department of Agriculture on public R&D investment in the USA. The report noted that spending on public agricultural R&D from 1900 to 2011 generated, on average, $20 in benefits to the USA economy for every $1 of spending – an impressive return on investment. However, after peaking in 2002, the ‘real value’ of this R&D investment (i.e. after adjusting for the rising cost of conducting research) has declined by a third. By contrast, investment in agricultural R&D has increased in real terms in other countries, including China, India and the EU. For the USA, this puts at risk its role as a global leader in agricultural sciences, agricultural productivity growth, and trade competitiveness. Something that the USA authorities are no doubt considering.

The second report is one written in 2017 by Niki Millist, Will Chancellor and Tom Jackson from ABARES on the extent of agricultural R&D in Australia. In the period from 2005/06 to 2014/15, the authors found that public investment in rural R&D increased from $2.3 billion to $3 billion, in real terms. On the face of it, this is a good outcome, as it should help Australia stay at the forefront of developing the tools needed to farm in ways that are productive, profitable and environmentally sustainable.  However, when I think about the analysis used in the ERS report above, I wonder whether the real value of this R&D investment has also increased. Since returning to Australia 15 years ago, my experience has been that the cost of conducting agriculture/plant science-related research has risen at a faster rate than public investment in R&D. If my experience is true of others’, then it seems likely that the real value of Australian agricultural R&D may not have increased, even though the dollar value in real terms may have increased. If this is something you are knowledgeable about, please contact me – I’m keen to learn more about the real value of R&D investment and whether it has changed over the past decades. 

The last leg of my overseas trip was a week-long stay in Tartu in Estonia, where I attended the New Phytologist Next Generation Scientists (NGS) meeting, followed by a New Phytologist Editorial Board meeting.  New Phytologist – despite its name – is one of the oldest plant science journals in the world, having started in 1902. I have been an editor for New Phytologist since 2007 – a role that I value hugely. One of the main reasons for this is because the journal is run by a non-profit foundation, with all of the profit being invested into science. NGS meetings are great example of this, with young researchers from around the world being offered free registration, accommodation and a contribution to their travel costs in order to attend the events. NGS events provide young scientists a chance to share their work and network with world-leading scientists. The event in Tartu – organised by one of my fellow Editors, Professor Maarja Öpik – was a great success. It was also an opportunity to learn more about how scientists stay fit and healthy. If you would like to see a fascinating example of this, use this link to watch how Professor Öpik uses heavy agricultural equipment as part of her fitness regime!

I’d like to welcome a new CEAT Fellow, Graham Smith. Graham comes to us with a wealth of experience working with farmers, industry and government; with recent key achievements including establishing the SW Western Australia Drought Innovation Hub. His background and interests align perfectly with the work we are doing at CEAT and we are excited to have him work with us on projects that assist farmers in future-proofing their business. You can find out a bit more about Graham in this month’s newsletter.

In the last newsletter I mentioned the upcoming Canberra visit of another CEAT Fellow, Dr Alison Bentley, Director of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). She will be speaking at the Crawford Fund conference on 16 August, an event celebrating its 35th year, and of which CEAT is a proud sponsor. Following this, she will give a seminar followed by panel discussion on food security at the ANU on 18 August. If you are in Canberra that week, I encourage you to attend!

Best wishes. And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!

Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT

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