Agricultural universities across the UK have announced that they are teaming up to help “strengthen the difference they make on the ground” through a joint research strategy.

Their plans include working with farming networks to get a sector-wide picture of research priorities, coordinating how they share evidence and training the next generation of scientists to research farming systems.

Launched today (Thursday, May 18) at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) Swindon campus, the new research strategy aims to respond to the major challenges and changes facing agriculture.

The group is comprised of the following agricultural universities:

  • Aberystwyth University;
  • Cranfield University;
  • Harper Adams University;
  • Hartpury University;
  • Newcastle University;
  • Queens University Belfast;
  • RAU;
  • Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC);
  • University of Edinburgh;
  • University of Hertfordshire;
  • University of Leeds;
  • University of Lincoln;
  • University of Nottingham;
  • University of Reading;
  • University of Warwick;
  • Writtle University College.

Chair of rural policy and strategy at the RAU, and lead author of the report, Prof. Tom MacMillan, said: “A good deal of time, money and thought goes into agricultural research, but is it achieving as much as it should?

“This strategy is about focusing that effort to make it more useful on the ground at a time when farmers and the environment are under huge pressure.

“This kind of joined-up working has proved tricky over the years because, rightly, research is independent and decentralised.

“What I hope is refreshing about this strategy is that the universities have recognised we have a shared responsibility and we’re teaming up and taking the initiative where we can.”

Importance of research

Executive chair of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Melanie Welham, said research and innovations can provides solutions to “many of the global challenges we face today”.

“To realise its full potential, we need a research and innovation system that is connected and engaged, allowing us to maximise opportunities for new discoveries and ways to deliver impact.

“The commitments and actions set out within the AUC Joint Research Strategy reflect these ambitions and are very much welcomed by BBSRC.”

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters echoed the sentiments of Welham and the BBSRC, highlighting that science and research play a “vital role” in enabling farmers and growers to be part of the solutions to the issues facing the food system.

The important role of science and research, Batters said, is seen through providing on-farm decision makers with robust evidence of what works, informing and analysing regulation and ensuring that change leads to sustainable benefits for all.

“I’m very pleased that the leading universities also recognise their responsibilities and the opportunities to increase their value to farming through a coordinated research strategy,” she said.

A ‘highly timely initiative’

Prof. Sir Charles Godfray of Oxford University said the joint research strategy is “a highly timely initiative”.

“It is to the great credit of the network of universities with expertise in agriculture that they have come together to form the Agricultural Universities Council (AUC) and to examine critically how research in this area needs to evolve and strengthen.

“The UK government recently published a Science and Technology Framework with a ten-point plan to make the UK a Science and Technology Superpower.

“This report, and future work planned by the AUC, will help ensure that agricultural research, interpreted broadly, is part of this vision.”

Henry Dimbleby of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it is “so welcome” to see scientists join forces in this way.

“This is the kind of strategic leadership called for by the deep and urgent crises in our food and farming.”