Interview: Ian Crute, chief scientist, Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board

Sound argument backed up by strong evidence is one of the basic tenets of the scientific community.

Ian Crute Image: Teena Taylor
Ian Crute Image: Teena Taylor

It is certainly a principle the first ever chief scientist of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) holds dear.

Ian Crute, who was appointed last year to oversee the body's multi-million pound investment in R&D and knowledge transfer, is well-known throughout the industry for his even-handed approach.

It is one of the reasons he was asked as an "honest broker" to chair an industry discussion at the University of Warwick on the future of Wellesbourne this month and he has been heavily involved in negotiations over the new Technology Strategy Board (TSB) funding.

But, make no mistake, Crute is as concerned over the future of horticultural applied R&D as the rest of the sector. "If Defra wants to increase fruit and veg production that is a reversal in policy," he explains. "Even at this 11th hour, why is it not prepared to move back to the position when HRI was sold to the University of Warwick?

Having worked in the sector for almost 40 years, Crute has experienced both the halcyon days of R&D funding, and the subsequent erosion to its current low point. But he argues that over the past year, Defra's seeming change in policy from environmental concerns to increased and sustainable food production must come with the resources to back it up.

"This comes at a time when the Government has never been more strapped for cash," he warns. "No-one is suggesting we should abandon basic science but there needs to be a higher priority given, with the money available, to ensure this science addresses practical issues important to the industry."

Having been brought up in the centre of Sunderland, it may seem a little incongruous for Crute to have developed such a strong passion for plants. But he was clear about his career path and pursued it wholeheartedly.

A first-class honours degree in botany and a PhD in plant pathology from Newcastle University led to a post at the then National Vegetable Research Station at Wellesbourne.

"I was recruited in the early 1970s at the end of a period of expansion in the sector," Crute recalls. "I learned a lot about the practical side but the contraction (in research funding) really started in the mid to late 1970s and has been continuous ever since in the amount of real expenditure."

He adds that the creation of Defra in 2001 put another nail in the coffin as the focus shifted from food production to environmental issues. "Horticulture suffered really badly in that because in the previous period, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food had really seen horticulture as a very important part of its portfolio.

"Now we are in a position where Defra has a policy on increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and production but has disposed of the capability to deliver it." He suggests that in some ways it was a good argument for why science should be "conducted at arm's length from Government".

With only Wellesbourne left of the HRI research stations - and with Defra transitional funding set to run out in 2012 - the industry is facing a crisis. The University of Warwick is forming a new school of life sciences and it is unclear how HRI will fit into that.

"The decisions being taken at Warwick are substantially by an academic organisation with a traditional view of what a biological sciences department should look like," Crute explains. "In some sense that is reinforcing the status quo of the past 20 years. But it has to be a bold, forward-thinking organisation (that will) invest in skills and capabilities to allow the new agenda to exist."

Defra has argued that the end of the LINK programmes is replaced by a more powerful system through the new TSB mechanism. Crute has been heavily involved with the TSB in terms of brokering a deal to allow AHDB funds to be used in the scheme and says he is hopeful if its success.

"There is evidence that the TSB has provoked people to think hard about projects that will be of practical importance," he reveals. "That is a good step in the right direction, but we need more than that."

Saving money will be a priority for whichever party is successful at the general election and it is a need that has not escaped any echelon of society. The AHDB has pledged to change, starting with moving levy boards to Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire where a new building is going up.

"The reason was primarily to save money and it has done that," Crute points out. "We can actually see £4m of savings in having done that, which means the levy payer gets better value for money. If that was all it was then you could argue whether it was worth it. It is also about the levy bodies working much more closely in addressing common questions, such as soils, disease, energy use and water use."

As the need to divert funding back into applied research heightens, Crute's new role could prove pivotal. "My job is to seek out opportunities to ensure that the levy bodies have a good profile where it matters with Government," he says.

CV

  • 1973-86: Research group leader in plant pathology at then HRI Wellesbourne
  • 1986: Obtained Fulbright fellowship to University of Wisconsin, USA
  • 1987: Head of crop and environment protection department at then HRI East Malling
  • 1993-95: Head of plant pathology, HRI Wellesbourne
  • 1995-99: Director, HRI Wellesbourne
  • 1999-2009: Director, Rothamsted Research
  • 2009 to date: First chief scientist, AHDB
  • 2010: Awarded CBE

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