Rothamsted Research has set out agriculture’s role in winning success for the government’s strategy to make the UK the best place in the world to invest in life sciences

  • 14
  • NOV
  • 2017

Excellent science demands excellent translational pathways, heard the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee this morning as it continued to collect evidence for its inquiry into Life Sciences and the Industrial Strategy

The committee had asked for a top recommendation from Angela Karp, Rothamsted’s Director for Science Innovation, Engagement and Partnerships. She was a member of a three-person panel representing the agricultural sector. (On 29 Nov, Rothamsted's written evidence was published, here.)

“If it’s about economic growth then we need excellent science coupled with excellent translational pathways,” said Karp.

“We need to make sure that the connection is there, that it’s cross-sectoral and [we must] not try to prescribe where the innovations might come from,” she concluded.

Karp had earlier faced questions on a range of issues. The committee asked whether the agricultural sector is well represented in current government planning and whether the best mechanisms are in place to support the agri-tech sector.

The committee has described the UK life sciences sector as “high-tech, research-intensive, diverse and innovative”. It says that a strong life sciences sector can simultaneously benefit the UK’s economy and help improve the nation’s health. 

But questions explored whether, until now, there has been too heavy a focus on the biomedical sciences, and whether the Government needs to explore and to support the contribution of the agricultural sector, particularly as it faces challenges such as Brexit. 

It emerged that what may be required is a separate government strategy for the agricultural sciences, a move supported by Karp and her two fellow panellists: Jonathan Elliott, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation, the Royal Veterinary College; and David Hughes, Head of Global R&D Technology Scouting, Syngenta. 

Karp described innovations such as new sensors, devices, robotics and the advent of Big Data in agriculture as a shift in the sector that need not necessarily mean a fall in job creation in coming years, but a change in the nature of jobs that people associate with farming and food production. 

Select Committee November 2017Agricultural panel: Angela Karp flanked by Jonathan Elliott (left) and David Hughes (right), online here

The committee showed particular interest in Karp’s suggestion that UK innovation needs a more dynamic, less linear approach to translating knowledge to application.

“In a linear model, there is a lot of focus on making sure the knowledge is right and, when you’re sure it’s right, you share that knowledge and look for applications of it. In a dynamic model, you are sharing that knowledge much earlier, to check the relevance of that science and that your assumptions about its usefulness are correct,” said Karp.

“By doing that you can then re-focus your efforts and improve what you’re building in your research. It’s at the basis of the way that 'lean' approaches are used in start-ups: they share early; they build again; they focus again; and they re-build again.

“This is iterative sharing and engagement rather than focusing on the knowledge and hoping someone else will come along and translate it,” said Karp.

She added: “We need a much closer connection between our excellent science and innovation, the translation and the scale-up of it going outwards - and that’s best done in dynamic models.” 

Karp linked a healthy population with healthy food, and the need for greater focus on the link between healthy soil, the crops and livestock this supports, and the people who consume these.

She drew attention to the need to address the decline in recent years in important micro-nutrients, such as selenium and zinc, in some food stuffs.

Karp stressed the value of working across subject areas and suggested the need for a “Theory of Everything” for soils that might draw on research into the complex network of connections of the human brain to help make sense of the complexity of the soil ecosystem.

She cited Rothamsted’s leading role in global projects to address soil quality and health, such as the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS), supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Rothamsted has submitted written evidence to the inquiry, and this will be available on the committee website once published. In the meantime, the whole of this morning’s session can be viewed online.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.