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Policy briefs: Winter 2017

Copyright: nettel9, iStock

How does BBSRC work with policymakers across the world? Find out in this new series of articles.

Welcome to this new section on policy matters in and around BBSRC. Use the links below to zip between our first three authors. You can also see pretty PDFs of these articles in the winter 2017 issue of BBSRC Business magazine (PDF 3MB).

  • A meeting with Bill Gates: BBSRC interim Executive Director for Science Amanda Collis reports on meeting one of the most famous philanthropists in the world.
  • The power of partnerships: BBSRC Associate Director, International, Tim Willis reviews the organisation’s recent leading roles in international engagement.
  • The clone wars: BBSRC Senior Policy Manager Sophia Abbasi reports on actions to address concerns about the lack of reproducibility in the biosciences.

A meeting with Bill Gates

Copyright: BBSRC
Amanda Collis. Copyright: BBSRC

BBSRC interim Executive Director for Science Amanda Collis reports on meeting one of the most famous philanthropists in the world.

One of the perks of a job like mine is that every once in a while you get to meet a really, really well-known person. Bill Gates made his name in home computers, invented the PC’s Windows system and co-founded what was once the biggest company in the world.

But that’s old news. He’s now (almost) as well known for the charitable foundation he set up with his wife – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). A significant part of the foundation’s work is via their Grand Challenges initiative that, like BBSRC, seeks to foster innovation to solve key problems around the world. Even a couple of months later, I’m still excited that I got to meet him along with my colleague BBSRC Deputy CE Steve Visscher.

The BMGF Grand Challenges conference took place in London in late October 2016. The scientific track included sessions on vaccines and life sciences innovation, drug discovery and translation, as well as focusing a global lens on antimicrobial resistance, crop research, big data, and research ecosystems that could help us meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Copyright: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation/Alain Brin
A meeting of the minds: BBSRC’s Amanda Collis is seated far left, and BBSRC’s Deputy CE Steve Visscher is seated to the right of Bill Gates. Copyright: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation/Alain Brin

One of the key areas of overlapping interest for Gates and BBSRC is crop research for food security. The conference’s crop research track focused on research to increase sustainable crop productivity in developing countries, highlighting the contributions and leadership of scientists based in Africa. It included interactive sessions to connect scientists supported through multiple co-funding partnerships, including by America’s USAID, and National Science Foundation, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in Germany, and DFID and BBSRC in the UK.

The meeting updated Bill on recent progress made by leading crop science researchers from the UK, US and Denmark on the ENSA and RIPE research programmes. ENSA is led by the John Innes Centre (JIC), which receives strategic funding from BBSRC so it can undertake long-term research, such as adding genes for nitrogen fixation to cereal plants that don’t have this natural symbiosis.  Similarly, the RIPE project aims to engineer photosynthesis to develop plants that more efficiently turn the sun’s energy into food.

Bill’s commitment and enthusiasm for this ground-breaking research was clear and I was delighted to receive a follow up letter from him, stating that the BMGF is excited to partner with BBSRC to connect world-class bioscience research in the UK with the most pressing challenges faced by smallholder farmers in developing countries. 

Looking ahead to the start of 2017, we will conclude the peer review of the Global Challenges Research Fund foundations call in Global Agriculture and Food Systems and progress workshops on international development challenges, including a grant-holders event in Tanzania for the joint research initiative on Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems.

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Copyright: nettel9, iStock
Copyright: nettel9, iStock

The power of partnerships

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Tim Willis. Copyright: BBSRC

Tim Willis, BBSRC Associate Director, International, reviews the organisation’s recent leading roles in international engagement.

BBSRC promotes international partnerships for leveraging the world-leading strength of UK bioscience and the role of international collaboration in sustaining the vibrancy of UK research.

One example is the Joint Programming Initiatives that help realise a European Research Area in specific societal challenges by mobilising national resources under a single strategy.

In the food sector, we have FACCE-JPI (full title: EU Joint Programming Initiative in Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change) that is led by French agricultural science funders INRA with BBSRC. It brings 22 countries around one table to agree a common implementation plan for mobilising national programmes together, and identifies new areas of joint collaboration.

The last meeting included a mix of ministries, scientists and other industry representatives and was hosted by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Berlin in early December. Our work towards refreshing FACCE-JPI’s implementation plan brought in members of our Scientific Advisory Board and Stakeholder Advisory Board with our Governing Board to steer our work against policy and research drivers.

UK alignment through its Global Food Security programme and strategy development really helped the UK input focus on actions needed for the next years, and the importance of social science and multidisciplinary approaches was welcomed.

By working together under a common implementation plan of aligning national programmes (as we do so successfully in the MACSUR network, which has already influenced global climate change negotiations), we can share risk, leverage resources and seek efficiency gains by reducing duplication of public resources and create collaborative funding programmes where new research is needed.

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Not just funding: BBSRC engages with many people, from public dialogues to government ministers. Copyright: maximmmmum, iStock

European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO)

BBSRC and MRC pay the UK financial contributions to allow EMBO to support talented life science researchers at all stages of their careers, stimulate the exchange of scientific information and create the optimal European environment where scientists can achieve their best work. Importantly, EMBO helps young scientists to advance their research, promote their international reputations and ensure their mobility.

In November I attended with MRC the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC) which oversees the work of EMBO and adopts its business plans and resource needs for the years ahead. It is clear that UK work in career development, our excellence in life science research and training, and our experience of capturing the impact of activities for public good is helping many other countries grow their bioeconomies and share best practice back to the UK.

Talking Brexit

I was delighted to be invited by Universities UK and HEFCE to speak at a recent meeting on ‘Putting universities at the heart of a thriving, global post-exit UK’. I was on a panel addressing ‘Building and sustaining effective global networks post-exit’, so was able to cover the long history of BBSRC and RCUK involvement in global forums.

I highlighted our work with G20 partners where we are delivering joint activities to coordinate wheat genetics research across the globe to increase potential wheat yield. This mix of EU and global partners is a real benefit to our partnerships and influence.

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Copyright: Askold Romanov, iStock
Copyright: Askold Romanov, iStock

The clone wars

Copyright: BBSRC
Sophia Abbassi. Copyright: BBSRC

There is increasing concern about lack of reproducibility in the biosciences. Senior Policy Manager Sophia Abbasi reports on BBSRC’s activities and policies.

Reproducibility in research has been a basic tenet of the scientific method for centuries. Results that cannot be replicated elsewhere can hinder scientific progress, delay translation of findings into applications and waste resources. Lack of reproducibility also threatens the reputation of research – in the biomedical sciences, in particular – and erodes public trust in science.

As an investor in research, BBSRC has to ensure that the researchers we fund work in accordance with best scientific practice. Researchers have to comply with the Research Councils' policy on Good Research Conduct and should work in within BBSRC’s Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice guidelines. As part of this, researchers must consider reproducibility in their BBSRC-funded work.

In BBSRC, our activities around supporting research reproducibility have ramped up considerably in recent years (our Chief Executive Melanie Welham recently blogged about this).

In 2015, we worked with the Academy of Medical Sciences, the MRC and the Wellcome Trust to hold a symposium on research reproducibility, leading to a report that includes strategies to help researchers to improve reproducibility. The four funders are still in contact to share and coordinate respective ongoing and planned activities, and produced a 2016 update on this.

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Losing battle? Scientists and policymakers are worried about low rates of reproducibility in some research areas. Copyright: solar22, iStock

BBSRC is funding new training for early-career researchers in this area, through our STARS programme. This five-day training course will be run over three successive years. Additional sponsorship for qualifying BBSRC-funded researchers is also available for the first round, taking place in April 2017 (now open for registration until 27 January 2017).

We have updated our guidelines on what information researchers should provide where grant proposals include animal use, with stronger emphasis on experimental design and statistics. Our peer-review delivery team staff also receives additional training for grant applications proposing animals use, so that this is examined thoroughly during review. This is an important aspect of our strategic aims for applying the 3Rs in research.

In seeking to understand the range of issues that challenge good reproducibility in the biosciences, we are also increasing our engagement with the research community. In the past few months, we have engaged in activities around issues as wide ranging as antibody validation, pre-prints in biology and other ‘open science’ activities.

Research reproducibility requires actions not just from funders, but also publishers, research organisations and researchers. In 2017, we will build on these activities and continue to work with our research community and others, particularly the Medical Research Council (MRC) and other life sciences research funders, seeking advice as required from our Strategy Advisory Panels.

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