Grand Challenges – inspiring next generation plant pathologists

Julie Flood, Phil Taylor and Claire Beverley attended the ‘Grand Challenges in Plant Pathology study group’ event at the Doctoral Training Centre, University of Oxford, 14-16 September. The event was the first of its kind, aiming to engage and inspire the next generation of plant pathologists.

Biotechnology lab The event was sponsored by the British Society of Plant Pathology (BSPP), the American Phytopathological Society (APS) and CABI, and saw 5 real problems posed by industry and non-academic organisations to a group of 27 young scientists, post-docs and graduate students, in all aspects of plant pathology and plant sciences.

Challenges posed were:

  • Challenge 1: Agrochemical resistance for fungicide management (proposed by Syngenta)
  • Challenge 2: Management practices for many of the key crop pests are known but farmers/producers do not use these approaches. How can this be addressed in the future? (proposed by CABI)
  • Challenge 3: Assessing the risk posed by novel pathogens (proposed by Fera)
  • Challenge 4: Indoor vs outdoor disease development (proposed by Syngenta)
  • Challenge 5: How do we stem the tide of plant diseases entering and establishing in the UK? (proposed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency [APHA])

Over the course of 3 days, attendees learnt about recent technological developments that have the potential to transform plant pathology research and about the legislative, ethical and practical considerations that must be taken into account when developing new technologies and approaches.

Julie, Phil and Claire, joined facilitators from Syngenta, Fera, APHA, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and others to inform and inspire discussion, encouraging delegates to think about the questions. To assist in the challenge, invited stakeholders including a farmer, statistician, anthropologist, epidemiologist and various other scientists with expertise in diagnostics, sensors and sequencing technologies, were on hand to provide comments on the proposed solutions. Kate Pollard (CABI-Egham) was part of the Challenge 5 study group.

Each group presented their findings in a “pitch” to Keith Norman, Head of Velcourt, the largest farming company in the UK. It was extremely close, but he felt that the team given the CABI challenge had understood and addressed the problem in a well thought out and sensitive way.

The group will continue with their post-graduate studies in the USA and UK, and commented that the exercise was so useful in making them think of the wider aspects facing farmers in the developing world especially with regard to plant health problems.

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