Analysis: Getting the most from a shrinking pot

Sectors must collaborate to ensure precious R&D funds are used wisely, players tell Magda Ibrahim.

When Defra announced the closure of HortLINK to new applications, the criticism was not of its long-expected demise but a lack of clarity in the ongoing funding of horticultural R&D.

Many in the industry believe that the challenges facing applied horticultural research need to be addressed in a more coordinated way - through industry-wide agreement on where research is needed and how it should be carried out.

This is particularly critical in the light of the recession and the pummelling that public spending is to receive, despite the investment launched by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

NFU horticulture board chairman Sarah Pettitt explains: "It is now time to stop talking about where we have been and to get a bit more commercial about where we are going.

"Science needs a more commercial attitude and that is real life - everything needs to be justified."

The end of HortLINK and the move to fund research through the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills-backed TSB is widely seen as a development of that commercial aim.

While the £75m Innovation Platform in Sustainable Agriculture & Food - launched by TSB this month - is a major investment, it is spread across the whole industry not just horticulture, and it is not clear what future funding calls will address.

The first call for collaborative R&D covers crop protection, with £13m of the TSB cash, and there is a major focus on increasing productivity as well as benefiting the UK economy and "capacity to capture value".

TSB director of innovation programmes David Bott tells HW: "We have to address whether we need taxpayers' money to do this. The point is that it's all about making money. We are not the only funding game in town, we have a specific role in this.

"If Defra decided it wanted work done that had no commercial payback, we wouldn't support that."

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture debated the issues during a meeting on horticulture on 20 October. Led by former Defra minister Jane Kennedy - following David Kidney's appointment as minister in the Department of Energy & Climate Change - the session provided a chance for industry leaders to alert Parliamentarians to the challenges.

Horticultural Development Company (HDC) chairman Neil Bragg, East Malling Research head of science Chris Atkinson and Warwick HRI director Simon Bright presented their views to MPs and peers including Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Lord Haskins, the Earl of Selborne, Liberal Democrat MPs Roger Williams and Andrew George and Labour MP Lynne Jones.

"The big challenge is what happens in the next five to 10 years," says Bragg. "We need to set up strategic R&D groups and our levy payers will have to accept that a certain amount of money needs to be diverted to strategic targets, they must work more closely with business development groups and support specific centres for applied research."

With just £5m to play with, the HDC could come up against barriers. Indeed, the levy body has already come under fire from the HTA for not supporting a bid for European funding for research into alternatives to pesticides.

The HTA has received support from Stockbridge Technology Centre, East Malling Research and business support body PERA to raise £95,000 - to put in an application to the EU Framework 7 funding stream for a project, worth EUR1m (£920,000), investigating non-chemical control options. Research is expected to focus on downy and powdery mildew, Botrytis, Phytophthora and Pythium. The application will be submitted in December.

Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board chief scientist Ian Crute believes that a debate is essential. He says: "It is important to have a strategic discussion about where things are not so badly broken and the places where we are completely deficient.

"I am sure there will be all sorts of arguments but there must be a way of doing this in an analytical way. Some people will feel they have lost out but it is impossible to spread these small amounts of money so thinly."

NFU chief horticultural adviser Phil Hudson adds: "Collaboration is the key. We can't simply move the HDC's money around, because there is only £5m. All routes to funding are needed."

According to Bragg, closer working with European countries could prove to be a way of getting the best value from available funding. He argues that by developing a Memorandum of Understanding with another country, duplication issues can be avoided.

"We are doing work with a German group on perennials and they have got 14 years of experience," he reveals. "My view is you have to go and have a look, but we do sometimes run into a brick wall where people say we shouldn't spend HDC money outside the UK."

One of the aspects that could help in a strategic approach to saving the TSB's money is the selection of people who will assess projects applying for funding. TSB has not yet chosen the assessors, but if the industry can ensure its priorities are well-defined in its own minds then it will have far greater control over where cash is directed.

Encouraging scientists to focus on the commercial side - so that a grower can truly benefit from any research - is a pressing need, says Atkinson.

"It is a slow process to re-educate scientists to have a commercial side to what they are doing, but we need to achieve that," he explains.

Bright adds: "All the stakeholders need to come together around the table to tap into this new energy to address issues around food security."

 


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