Can agriculture cultivate a new variety of CERN?

Pooling resources means large projects can be built that are beyond the funds of any single university.

There’s an interesting paper out in Trends in Plant Science, The Future of Field Trials in Europe: Establishing a Network Beyond Boundaries by Stützel, Brüggemann, and Inzé. It examines at the challenges facing agricultural stations at the moment.

They look at large science infrastructure projects in other fields and ask if something similar could be done for agriculture. Pooling resources means large projects can be built that are beyond the funds of any single university.

A literal CERN for agriculture on the Franco-Swiss border would be a staggeringly bad idea, but that’s not what Stützel et al. are proposing. Instead they talk about networking stations. The press release for the paper covers a range of sites: “…from a field in Scotland to an outpost in Sicily.

The BRIWECS project on winter wheat.
The BRIWECS project on winter wheat. Photo: C. Lichthardt.

At worst it could sound like research stations with another layer of management, but Stützel et al. highlight a lot of possible benefits. The project, which they call, a European Consortium for Open Field Experimentation (ECOFE) can develop common standards, act as a data repository and networking forum for researchers. Funding members will be funding the network and so will have access to sites across the network and not just their local site. This could make projects with a wider geographical range more practical.

I think the effect on funding could be mixed. Big Projects can grab a large proportion of funding from science councils, leaving less for independent efforts. However, there’s also the possibility that ECOFE could be an attractive label or brand to fund and draw more resources into agriculture from outside current funding bodies.

I do also wonder if a big Pan-European network could lead to a canalisation of research projects into a limited range of sexy fields. The press release notes: “In addition to finding financial and political investment, ECOFE’s success will hinge on whether scientists at the various institutional research stations will be able to sacrifice a bit of their autonomy to focus on targeted research projects, Stützel says.” Given reducing budgets and the development of funding cultures in Europe, there’s probably a danger that research could be targeted into certain areas anyway. ECOFE might have the possibility that the problems are set by scientists across Europe and not by the passing whims of political parties.

However, the benefits that a working network could bring do seem worthy of consideration. What I particularly like is that Stützel et al. aren’t just proposing something that works with today’s problems. They’re looking to the future and asking what botanists are going to need access to in the coming century. At the time of blogging, the paper was free access, and is well worth a read.

%d bloggers like this: