The government spending review has been supportive for science, but there is a noticeable shift towards funding for initiatives that can translate science into benefits for the end user. How to achieve this closer alignment was discussed at REAP and it was encouraging to see the appetite of farmers for greater access to scientific knowledge.
Sir Paul Nurse has just completed a significant review of UK research support in which he distinguishes between “discovery”, “applied” and “translational” science.
He makes the point that Applied Science is more goal directed than Discovery Science and is aimed at achieving specific objectives and outcomes.
However, for this to be successful he identifies two necessary conditions: firstly, that the knowledge base required for the application is sufficiently well progressed, such that effective development of the application is generally foreseeable.
And secondly, for the objectives to be well chosen, which requires understanding of the potential beneficiaries’ needs, whether societal or commercial, so that the applications being developed by the research are worthwhile.
It is to be expected that researchers in the field of agri-food – who can provide evidence that they have contacts with farmers and growers and also have an understanding of the future requirements of the industry – will be more successful with bids for future funding.
Sir Paul extends this reasoning further by highlighting the risks in translational science if the potential market is not fully understood.
The report says: “There can be a natural optimism bias whereby researchers feel that outcomes of their research are closer to application than they really are, and begin pursuing a more goal-directed approach before the state of the knowledge base is ready … the aim of translational research should be to increase the knowledge-base to determine what applications may be possible, whereupon more highly directed approaches can be taken.”
It was interesting to hear at our REAP conference about the desire of farmers and other businesses to get more involved in helping the direction of research and of gaining access to its outcomes; their involvement would meet some of Sir Paul’s recommendations. We are addressing this aspiration with the introduction of our new Research Digest.
The importance of creating good links between academics, potential collaborators and end users has also been highlighted by Innovate UK.
Chief Executive Officer Dr Ruth McKernan (right), speaking at a recent Cambridge conference, explained how Innovate UK is looking at changing its funding model, and this was also included in the spending review.
Evidence of potential follow-up funding from the private sector she said not only showed there was market demand for the technology but it also helps Innovate UK to justify its initial investment.
She gave the example that investments in low carbon initiatives have returned £10 – £28 to the economy for each £1 invested by Innovate UK. In the commercial sector plant breeding companies, agronomy service providers and other technology-based businesses are constantly innovating to maintain competitive advantage.
As a result technology developed in this way has a well-established route to market through existing value chains and the customer base benefits from new products or services designed with their needs at the forefront. But what about the publicly funded applied and translational research underway in our world-leading Universities and research institutes?
The journey of these ideas to market is slower, more expensive and usually more convoluted. Public investment is important in de-risking further investment from the private sector.
Agri-tech is no different from other sectors in experiencing the so-called “Valley of Death” where early stage ventures wanting to commercialise a product or service find themselves requiring significant capital and / or partnerships to get to market. We have been encouraged by the growing support of the investment community across the east of England for agri-tech developments.
We had a good number of investors in the audience at REAP this year to hear from early stage companies presenting in the Start-Up Showcase.
Our desire this year for the GROW Business Plan Competition is in addition to identifying the agri-entrepreneurs among UK farmers and students, we also hope to be able to encourage more researchers to think as entrepreneurs and take up the opportunities that are being offered within the Agri-Tech East ecosystem.
This includes: access to end users and potential research partners, mentoring support for business plans and concept ideas, incubation space and interested investors. This heady mix provides the perfect atmosphere for innovation – so in the words of our favourite Christmas time chef – “let’s be ‘aving you.”
Whatever you are doing over the holiday – have a good one.
Image shows Andrew Francis, Farms Manager for Elveden Estate, being interviewed at REAP by the RoCRE stand, sponsor of the Start-Up Showcase.