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Looking ahead with Professors Johnathan Napier and Peter Shewry

Looking ahead with Professors Johnathan Napier and Peter Shewry
In terms of thinking forward now to the future, one of the things I am very conscious of is the next generation in terms of I am sitting here with two really, three really enthusiastic scientists. And you were clearly driven by something at some point to study plant biology. And I have known Johnathan a long time. Yeah. But how do we get that through to the next generation? Because as somebody who lectures in university, trying to convince people that plants are really important is really, really hard work. And it does fall apart somewhere in those sort of– in the UK in those teenage years. You can excite young scientists, but you cannot post them the job.
I think that is the problem. Right! The prospects need to be better for young scientists coming through studying plant science. But we are going to need them, aren’t we? I mean, why did we go into plant science? I mean that is what we do. Well, I could tell you why I went into plant science, because I come from a farming family. I was really interested in plant biology. And then I went to a university where I got completely enthused about the more molecular, cellular aspects of that biology. And that is why I have had the career I have. And I do not know. So what’s yours? Well, yeah, I mean, I think mine was very similar.
I grew up in rural northern Ireland. Obviously growing up in rural northern Ireland in the early 1980s, an opportunity to leave as quickly as possible was grasped when, due to some administrative error, the University of Nottingham offered me a place to go there as an undergraduate. But it was a great opportunity, and I learned at the very outset about plant biotechnology. And that’s really what I wanted to do. But I think even then, you could see what people were saying, “well, we can do this”. Or “we might be able to do this in the future”, and “it might have an impact that will be this”.
And I think that is the important thing is being able to demonstrate and explain to people.
It is like: “OK, so you’re doing this clever stuff with stuff that you cannot actually see”; but it can ultimately have an impact that will help people reduce their risk of diseases of give them better food or whatever. Without over-promising stuff, I mean, obviously the problem with GM is it has been, or at least it is badged or presented as having over-promised. It is always like transgenic JAM tomorrow sort of thing, which is not true, because the technology is so new, you cannot really say that. But I think what we need to do for the generations behind us, which makes us sound like we must be 120, which in Peter’s case is true.
I think it is important that all the stuff we talked about is exactly why we do what we do and we carry on doing it is because you realise that there are layers upon layers of complexity, which makes it challenging but makes it exciting. And if you can make some sort of difference, so you can make some sort of impact, surely you should carry on doing that.
One of the motivations behind this course is to raise the profile of the kinds of issues that we have been talking about the last half an hour or so among people who are curious about where their food comes from and what actually are they eating, and is it safe, and all of the other issues. And I think for me, having worked in a university system for a long time, we have had problems recruiting people into plant science.
And there is this perception, has been a perception I think among school leaders that if you are interested in biology, there is a good career out there in biomedically related science, and it is satisfying because you can change people’s lives for the better. And all of that is undoubtedly true. But I think the totality of what we are discussing here provides a comparable set of equally satisfying challenges. I do think one of the issues is the one that you mentioned, Peter, which is about career structure. And the industries I think are themselves quite concerned about this. And we have been talking to food retailers and producers about their perception that people are still not coming through into their business.
They may get some school-leavers, but they want to increase their capabilities and I think increase their capacity and introduce them to more aspects of the business. And those are important issues, which I think collectively people who are involved in this need to address. Because those challenges are there. We have seen in this course, we have discussed many of the issues here. Those are real challenges, people eating the wrong things, lots of people without enough to eat, some people eating too much, our inability, apparently, to produce more because all sorts of things are in short supply, lack of good quality land, poor inadequate infrastructure. These are all issues that people with commitment to this challenge can grapple with.
Surely it cannot be beyond us collectively to provide them with those opportunities. That is right, and it is only going to get worse. Because if we have, whatever, 7 billion mouths to feed now, and if we have 8 and 1/2 or 9 billion to feed in 30 or 40 years’ time, then again, I think we are more and more beholden to try and help provide some sort of solution.
In this debate, opportunities in food research are considered and the importance of attracting young people into research areas identified as ‘vulnerable’ is discussed.
The sponsors of much research in UK Universities (the Research Councils) have identified several key disciplinary areas for food security research where only limited numbers of students are enrolling for degree courses. Importantly, some of these areas have been identified by the Royal Society and by the Chief Scientist’s Foresight group as being crucial to the future production of increased quantities of good quality, nutritious food (see reading in Weeks one and two)
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Global Food Security: Addressing the Challenge

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