Sci­en­tific re­search chief ready to fight

The Press and Journal (Inverness) - - NEWS -

When fi­nances are pre­car­i­ous and sup­port is shaky it’s use­ful to have some­one on board who can tough it out.

The new chair­man of the James Hut­ton In­sti­tute (JHI), Pro­fes­sor James Cur­ran, says he de­vel­oped a thick skin dur­ing his time at the en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tor, Sepa, and his ex­pe­ri­ence there ex­posed him to some of the mis­con­cep­tions peo­ple can have about science and gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

Three years spent ar­gu­ing that Sepa pro­vides an es­sen­tial reg­u­la­tory func­tion as op­posed to be­ing a drain on the coun­try’s re­sources will stand him in good stead as he steers the JHI through un­cer­tain times and the threat of re­duc­ing in­come that looms in the wake of Brexit.

The most likely im­pact of the new chair­man’s ap­point­ment will be a higher pro­file for the in­sti­tute as Prof Cur­ran be­lieves JHI has a duty to project the value of its re­search to gov­ern­ment, cus­tomers, stake­hold­ers and the pub­lic.

“If we can con­vince the pub­lic of value of work we do in sus­tain­abil­ity and the ben­e­fits the pub­lic would ex­pect, then that al­lows gov­ern­ment to put money in, be­cause at the mo­ment they don’t have the pub­lic sup­port.

“We did a so­cioe­co­nomic anal­y­sis of the in­sti­tute’s out­put and dis­cov­ered, con­ser­va­tively, that every £1 spent here gen­er­ates £12 of value-added else­where in the econ­omy. That’s a fan­tas­tic re­turn on ex­pen­di­ture.

“The EU’s Lis­bon Treaty had an agree­ment that 3% of the GDP of every mem­ber in the EU should be spent on re­search and de­vel­op­ment. The last fig­ure I saw for the UK was 1.7%. We need to keep up with the rest of the world.”

The Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment sup­ports just over half the work done in the in­sti­tute at In­ver­gowrie, near Dundee, and in Aberdeen, and the other mil­lions need to be won com­pet­i­tively, his­tor­i­cally from pre­dom­i­nantly Euro­pean fun­ders.

“Both of th­ese sources are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some dif­fi­culty,” said Prof Cur­ran.

“The in­sti­tute has been fan­tas­ti­cally suc­cess­ful in com­pet­i­tive bid­ding for Euro­pean re­search fund­ing, and as we leave Europe we don’t know what the out­come of that will be. I’d very much hope the UK would stay in the Euro­pean Re­search Club, but we don’t know if that will hap­pen or not.

“If it doesn’t hap­pen then those funds will be repa­tri­ated to the UK and we would ar­gue they should be spent on the kind of re­search we do here and we’d need ac­cess to com­pet­i­tively bid for those funds.”

As with other as­pects of Brexit, it is a wait­ing game, but in the mean­time JHI staff are heav­ily pro­mot­ing the ser­vices of the in­sti­tute’s com­mer­cial arm, James Hut­ton Ltd.

The other as­pect prey­ing on minds is the un­cer­tainty over the fu­ture of staff that come from 25 Euro­pean coun­tries. Prof Cur­ran says that since the Brexit ref­er­en­dum there has been a down­turn in Euro­pean ap­pli­cants.

He says his board needs to get the right pro­cesses in place to en­sure the science be­ing done at the in­sti­tute is “years ahead of any­body else”.

With many con­cerned about fall­ing in­comes in tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture and un­cer­tainty over fu­ture sub­si­dies, many farm­ers and landown­ers are in­creas­ingly look­ing for ways to max­imise the pro­duc­tiv­ity of their land and di­ver­sify in­comes.

In­te­grat­ing forestry with farm­ing may of­fer valu­able op­por­tu­ni­ties to do just that. While farm­land may not be de­void of trees, there is a cul­tural split in ru­ral land man­age­ment be­tween farm­ing and forestry.

We see this not only in the minds of farm­ers and foresters – two dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sions with dif­fer­ent skills – but it is per­pet­u­ated in pol­icy. Slowly this ap­proach to land use is be­ing chal­lenged, and per­haps what will move mat­ters for­ward is the re­al­ity of fund­ing sup­port in a post-Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy (Cap), post-Brexit Scot­land.

Think­ing about how trees might work along­side farm­ing to ben­e­fit farm­ers is only one as­pect of in­te­grated land man­age­ment, but it is one that can re­sult in many more ben­e­fits than an even­tual tim­ber crop.

A well-de­signed wood­land can pro­vide shel­ter for stock, im­prove feed con­ver­sion rates and help to ex­tend the grow­ing sea­son, not to men­tion pro­duc­ing a new and se­cure long-term, tax-free in­come stream.

Across dif­fer­ent re­gions in Scot­land, we are see­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to trees and agri­cul­ture – and there is the op­por­tu­nity for farm­ers in the north and north-east to ex­am­ine what works for them.

The Sheep and Trees ini­tia­tive, launched last year, has been a ten­ta­tive step to ex­plore how farm­ers might use trees to im­prove their prof­itabil­ity.

At Lymiecleuch Farm in the Scot­tish Bor­ders, blocks of forestry have been linked to cre­ate large pad­docks, which has been found to as­sist sheep man­age­ment of the Che­viot flock. Since the least grazed ar­eas were se­lected for plant­ing, sheep num­bers have not been re­duced and pro­duc­tiv­ity has in­creased, due to bet­ter shel­ter, whilst in­come from tim­ber has as­sisted cap­i­tal in­vest­ment on the farm.

At Mains of Fin­cas­tle Farm, by Pit­lochry, the in­te­gra­tion of sheep and trees was ini­ti­ated more than 100 years ago. The 1,335-acre farm, which also has 150 acres of wood­land, works com­fort­ably with about 10% plant­ing at any time, along­side cat­tle and sheep pro­duc­tion.

The plan­ta­tions’ roles in sup­port­ing the farm­ing en­ter­prise will change over time, some­times pro­vid­ing di­rect in­come and some­times re­duc­ing out­puts. It is also es­ti­mated that £4 to £5 per head is saved on win­ter feed for breed­ing ewes be­cause of the shel­ter pro­vided.

The Scot­tish Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (SRDP) also fea­tures an agro­forestry op­tion.

Fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful ap­proach by Forestry Com­mis­sion Scot­land to ex­tend the tree species op­tions avail­able un­der the scheme to in­clude fruit and nut trees, there is an op­tion for the farm to not only get an in­come from a tim­ber crop in the long-term, but also ex­plore op­tions for a har­vestable crop in a shorter timescale.

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