Professor Bob Furbank is a renowned researcher at the Australian National University’s Research School of Biology. His career has spanned over 30 years, during which he has published many academic papers and led numerous successful research projects. Bob is an internationally recognised pioneer of multiscale or “systems” plant biology, with major contributions to areas ranging from gene discovery to plant growth and field photosynthetic performance. Bob has also added the role of CEAT Champion to his resume, commencing in 2021. CEAT’s Sarah Biggerstaff recently sat down with Bob to discuss his work to ensure future food security, the role technology can play in this, and why he is such a strong promoter of CEAT’s mission.
Bob has been involved with CEAT since its inception, having contributed to the original bid proposal for the ACT Government. He has an extensive background in plant biology within the precinct, having been at CSIRO for 30 years, and worked at ANU since 2014. As research as leader of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP) Bob’s work focused on improving photosynthesis and yield in crops for food security using a cross-disciplinary approach, working with researchers from four universities, as well as the CSIRO and International Rice Research Institute. Agri-technology is central to many aspects of Bob’s research, and he believes that the future of ag will be dependent on technology: “Farmers now can benefit from using digital technologies to improve their yields. In the future they will have to be more ‘teched up’, they will need drones, sensors, etc. to remotely monitor their plants growth”. He notes that Australian farmers are some of the most technologically advanced and rapid adopters of new tech on the planet.
However, farmers are presented with an array of challenges when considering whether or not to adopt new technologies that enter the market. For one thing, there is often inappropriate regulation of many aspects of agri-technology, which can place farmers in a risky position. A related issue is social licence around genetically modified (GM) food products, with concerns from some groups as to whether they are safe. In discussing these concerns, Bob says that GM has become a political football, and that there is often conflation of GM and big pharma. As a remedy to these issues, Bob stresses the importance of public education campaigns on a large scale to advise what these technologies actually do and the benefits they offer. He believes that the tide of public opinion is changing as we struggle with major global challenges in agriculture and public health.
Staying with the subject of education, Bob highlights the importance of learning about agriculture and plant sciences, not only for adult consumers, but also for children who will be the consumers, scientists and ag producers of the future. As part of the CoETP, Bob and his team developed educational programs for school children that can be integrated into the curriculum. The programs aim to teach children about photosynthesis and its importance for food security, while inspiring the next generation of scientists. You can learn more about the program on the CoETP website.
Continuing to look towards the future of cutting-edge science and agriculture, Bob predicts that the biggest opportunity for significant advances is to bring together digital ag and synthetic biology. “The rate of progress of synthetic biology is astonishing”, Bob says, “in the last 10 years we have made developments equivalent to the progress of moving from the brick mobile phone of the early 90s to the modern smart phone. We have developed methods that save so much time. Technologies now are becoming so doable that they will eventually penetrate every aspect of the way people work with plants”. Again, however, he reiterates the need for appropriate regulation of these emerging technologies, education as well as well-informed social licence to implement them successfully.
As a CEAT Champion, Bob identifies strongly with CEAT’s goal of fostering and facilitating interdisciplinary research teams to tackle complex agricultural problems. He is also a strong advocate for driving research institutions towards a more outcome-oriented culture, so that the quality research that is undertaken is fully utilised through practical applications. However, there is a sense among some that this goal detracts from the purity of academic research. “I’ve spent 30 years working to improve crops while doing the very best plant science, but I still feel there is a sense in academia that if you work towards translation and commercial application your work is seen as tainted, less valid”, according to Bob. His own work over the course of his long career has resulted in numerous practical ways of improving the efficiency and productivity of grain crops.
Bob believes that a collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach to research translation is now more important than ever, because of the major global issues we have to tackle, and their impact on our agri-sector and future food security. He has applied his own cross disciplinary skills in his mission to replace expensive, slow technologies used in plant studies with high throughput, high resolution techniques to improve crop yields. To achieve this, he brought together a world class team of plant biologists, software engineers, mechatronics engineers and ICT specialists to build the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF), for which he led the Canberra node from 2008-2014. The work done by APPF since has revolutionised plant studies, and delivered a range of new tools and techniques to help crops adapt to the future demand for food products and the change in resource availability resulting from climate change.
So, what does Bob see as the value of CEAT and why is he so active in his role as CEAT champion? “There exists a ‘Valley of death’ between commercialisation, innovation and research. There is also a chasm between PhD training as a researcher and working to apply your research in the real world. CEAT has the potential to bridge these gaps, and help change this culture”. Bob argues that researchers can do cutting edge research and have practical impacts at the same time, showing how robust their research actually is. CEAT is at the forefront of this push for cultural change; in our project team approach we utilise the broad array of deep expertise at ANU and CSIRO to form inter-disciplinary teams which can tackle complex agricultural problems in innovative, collaborative ways. By facilitating these teams, CEAT is helping to enable the translation of discoveries into meaningful impacts.
Inter-disciplinary research that produces tangible real world benefits epitomises what can be achieved when researchers from a range of specialties come together to tackle complex problems. Bob is passionate about championing this approach to research projects, because, as he says “to ensure our future food security we need to change, we need to be cross disciplinary and break down barriers between disciplines and not just talk about it”.
For more information on Bob’s research and career, you can visit his profile on the ANU website.