Scientific research chief ready to fight
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.