This year’s British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) Grand Challenges in Plant Pathology Study Group gathered at Chicheley Hall, Milton Keynes, UK, 25-28 September 2018. Chicheley Hall is a grade II listed country mansion, home of the Kavli Royal Society International Centre. This was the second meeting of its kind, following on from the first successful meeting at the University of Oxford in 2016.
The Royal Society is “dedicated to promoting excellence in science and is a fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists”, so we were in inspirational surroundings for the aims of Grand Challenges. Students are encouraged to offer solutions to complex challenges that we face in safeguarding food security and sustaining trade and livelihoods. This year, a mix of 30 postgraduates, postdocs and early-career researchers took part in the event.
Over the course of the meeting, we tackled issues in 4 broad categories: plant diseases and food security; emerging diseases in Europe; adopting innovations in agriculture; and post-Brexit. I was one of 7 ‘champions’ guiding small groups of students identifying challenges within the topic areas and moderating their searches for solutions. The aim was to stimulate wider reflection and innovative thinking, which the study group demonstrated in abundance!
It was a unique opportunity for me to meet and learn more about the next generation of plant pathologists, as each participant was invited to give a 15 minute presentation on their background and current research. The champions set the scene for the challenges based on their own experiences and current work. Challenges set by the champions were presented in such a way to encourage wider consideration of social, economic and political aspects as well as scientific issues. One of the study groups embraced the challenge of red list chemical use despite safer alternatives; of particular interest to the Plantwise initiative and one of my fellow champions, Wilmarie Kriel, who works for Starke Ayres Seeds in South Africa.
I would like to thank the organisers Prof. Murray Grant (BSPP President), Dr Vardis Ntoukakis of the University of Warwick and Dr Eric Boa (BSPP Programme Secretary) once of CABI, but now residing at the University of Aberdeen, for including me in this event and to the inspirational students of the group who tackled the challenges with such great enthusiasm and insight!