November 01, 2013

1/11/13: Agricultural engineering to benefit from new research and development funding

UK agricultural engineering got a surprise boost from the UK government today when David Willetts MP and minister for Universities & Science, Department for Business Innovation and Skills told delegates at this year's Bledisloe Memorial Lecture, an annual event held by the newly formed Royal Agricultural University.

He said that while the UK was the home of the industrial revolution and had seen much modernising in a multitude of sectors, agriculture had not fared well and singled out agricultural engineering in particular that had suffered due to funding decision around research and development from the 1970s.

"What was once the world's most advanced agricultural sector has fallen far behind in terms of technology." and relies on imported lose-paid labour to survive.

Mr Willetts said, "We shouldn't be dependent on low-paid labour in agriculture" and that he wanted to see a significant investment made in agricultural engineering. He quoted successful examples of where engineering was making a difference such as satellites coupled with smart software that plan tractor routings in fields to minimise the impact on soils; where wind control systems are helping to reduce and accurately apply fertilisers and using 'big data' was helping to develop more efficient farming techniques. He specifically quoted the Rosland Institute and reported its achievement of doubling poultry meat production from the same amount of feed over the past 25 years.

He said his government was keen to encourage agriculture and that it had to rise to the challenge.

For example, in crop science there was a commitment to increasing wheat yields from 11 tonnes per ha to 20 tonnes per ha by 2020. He said 'challenges' were being met with the use of smart computer apps and quoted a African and Latin American developments where coffee growers could monitor weather conditions to ensure the timing of pesticide applications were optimal and to harvest at the optimum time to maximise prices received from supermarkets.

When addressing GM technology he told the audience that the UK government was frustrated that the Commission is still not bringing forward regulations to govern the introduction and use of GM plants and said there existed a real danger that Europe would fall behind the rest of the world in this important area of technological development. Governments should not be not opposed to good science and agriculture and good science and good food production coming together, he added. "I wouldn't have to explain to a scientific audience the advantages of genetic manipulation."

In question time the Minister was congratulated on expressing support for agricultural engineering and in response suggested that the new 'network of institutions' could include a centre of excellence for agricultural engineering and encouraged supporters to approach the government for funding under one of its new schemes.

Giving the first Bledisloe Memorial Lecture under university status, Mr Willetts was thanked by the RAU's Principal Chris Gaskill for his great support for the change from college to university status, Mr Willetts noted that excellent small institutions, which because they had under 400 students couldn't become universities, would now be recognised for the work they do both domestically and abroad.

Learning from history, David Willetts recounted what he considered as the three major errors that led to a decoupling of pure research from applied research and development, which in turn has negatively impacted the aquaculture sector: the Rothchild Review of 1971, which resulted in pure research being kept but applied research being allowed to be eroded away; successive cuts and reductions in public sector research institutes and the closure of schools of agriculture and the loss of networks of institutions. 

While these developments could not be reversed it was clear that they could be addressed with funding packages that should benefit agriculture from joining together ring-fenced Research Council scientific funding and funding for business and private partners so that one single budget can take a single idea from the lab right through to commercial application. "That's how wer're trying to re-build the links between pure research and applied research."

Secondly, we need a revised network of institutions and third we need patient, long-term funding for agriculture research. 

He identified several 'new arrangements' for funding from the allocation of UK£170 million of new funds to catalyst funding where business would not expected to pick up the whole amount of their research and development, but possibly just one-third through to 'Innovation vouchers' that might give a small SME £5000-£10,000 of assistance "to step through the door way" and buy the research it needed to meet a particular need from an expert in research.

The Viscount Bledisloe Memorial Lecture, an annual event held by the newly formed Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester in Gloucestershire, UK, (established as a college in 1845) was given this year by the UK's Right Honourable David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities & Science, Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Professor Chris Gaskell, Principal of the RAU, listens to a thought-provoking lecture on how agriculture should be supported in future.


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