Horticultural science - Researchers to the rescue

Applying scientific expertise to horticultural concerns can solve pressing environmental and production problems, discovers Gavin McEwan.

The plant world throws up a huge number of questions, the answers to which can have a direct bearing on how we live, particularly at a time of environmental concern and rising commodity prices. What are the best ways of controlling pests without potentially harmful chemicals? How can we grow fruit and vegetables with less water or energy? How can green spaces be maintained to the same standard with fewer inputs?

What's on offer?

Jobs in horticultural science divide between those at specialist research institutes such as Rothamsted Research, a large agricultural research body which also covers edible horticulture, the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) or the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) on the one hand, and research positions at colleges and universities on the other.

However the boundary between the two is blurred. For example Warwick University has integrated the formerly government-run Wellesbourne Horticultural Research Institute within its School of Life Science, with other former separate bodies the Scottish Crop Research Institute, the National Soil Resources Institute and IBERS taking similar paths.

Statutory bodies and other government agencies also need plant scientists for roles from plant pathologists to applied ecologists. These include the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Forestry Commission. Training in life sciences is also required for some environmental jobs in local government.

What are employers looking for?

According to Dr Russell Sharp, a research leader at Moulton College: "The majority of researchers have gone through the degree route, then specialised. There is always funding for research so long as there's a horticulture industry. The key thing for a long-term career is to make yourself the expert on something."

Moulton has used Knowledge Transfer Partnerships to work with commercial growers on several research projects, most recently on developing alternatives to conventional slug pellets. The college is also researching the viability of growing exotic food crops used in ethnic cuisine, which until now have had to be imported.

The internationally respected STRI, meanwhile, has a staff of 17 researching all aspects of turf maintenance. According to head of turfgrass protection Dr Ruth Mann: "There is no one-size-fits-all employee, which gives us a range of backgrounds to draw on. Most will have studied biological sciences, but we have people who have come from factories. We have put them through an online degree via Myerscough College."

Mann herself exemplifies the researchers' varied backgrounds, having studied applied ecology and crop protection before applying her "first love" of plant pathology to the world of sports turf. This has led to her advising several top European football clubs on disease-free pitch care.

Moving on

A high level of specialist-applied knowledge can open doors to lectureships, private consultancy and even international assignments.

To acquire a depth of knowledge in a particular topic, many researchers take PhDs or even post-doctorate study. There is no risk of becoming over-qualified, according to Rothamsted's head of business and information services Stephen James.

"People who are doing research here invariably have PhDs in a plant or crop-related subject," he says. "There are posts in support of science but they few and far between."

What will I be paid?

Given the investment required to qualify to degree level and above, research positions pay better on the whole than other jobs in horticulture, and there are few roles under £20,000. More senior research positions are typically in the £25,000-£35,000 bracket.


Specialist degrees

FdSc Horticulture Technology: SwBu

BSc Hons Plant & Soil Science: ScAu

BSc Hons Plant Biology: ScAu

MSc/PGDip in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants: ScRb

Several universities also offer plant science degrees


Dr Alison Foster's passion for plants was only awoken after having done a degree and PhD in chemistry, and worked for large pharmaceuticals companies for eight years.

"I started doing gardening at home and developed an interest in plants," she says. "I took the RHS Level 2 by correspondence and began to wonder if I might pursue a career in the sector."

Alison was taken on as a trainee at the Birmingham Botanic Garden, then moved to the Oxford Botanic Garden in 2008, where her rise was rapid. Having worked on a display of medicinal plants, she was made a glasshouse horticulturist, before taking on her current role early this year. "My background as a researcher will help as I build up the research work at the garden," she says.

Her advice to others? "If you understand plants from both theoretical and practical points of view, it will stand you in a much better position," she says. "But communication with the public is also very important."

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