WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2013-- Educating the general public and Washington decision makers about the innovations of plant science is vital for the sector to achieve potential solutions to global challenges such as feeding a large population with fewer resources, says the president of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research.

In a briefing Tuesday for a paper published by the American Society of Plant Biologists, David Stern laid out the details of “Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science: A Vision for 2015-2025,” the product of a two-phase Plant Science Research Summit held at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2011 and 2013.

The concerns of the summit’s plant science industry representatives echoed those in the “Report to the President on Agricultural Preparedness and the Agricultural Research Enterprise” published last December by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). PCAST said the nation is not prepared for future agricultural challenges and recommended major research and development investments through USDA and the National Science Foundation.

“Failing to realize the promise for advances in plant science research will have sobering consequences,” says the report, which is referred to as the “Decadal Vision.” “Chronic underinvestment leads to loss of competitiveness, missed opportunities, and environmental and community degradation through use of outmoded technologies.”

Describing it as a “living document” that plant scientists will revisit within three years, Stern said the Decadal Vision is used as an informative tool on Capitol Hill for legislators deciding where research dollars will be allocated.

The paper outlines five research goals, including increasing the ability to predict plant traits from plant genomes in diverse environments. The other goals are assembling plant traits in different ways to solve problems; cataloguing plant-derived chemicals; enhancing the ability to find answers in a torrent of data; and reforming the environment for plant science doctoral students.

Toni Kutchan, vice president for research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, emphasized the importance of technology to find solutions in an era of “Big Data” science.

“Unless we want to be just stamp collectors, we need way of interrogating data sets we’re collecting,” she said.

Patrick Schnable, director of the Center for Plant Genomics at Iowa State University, focused on the particular importance of agricultural crop science and trait data.

“The great thing about ‘Big Data’ is it is helping us develop hypotheses more quickly,” he said.

If they are successful with some of the goals presented in the paper, Schnable said, “Plant science will be considerably more predictive.”

“It will improve selection of plant breeding,” he said. “It will enhance the ability to breed crops to withstand weather variability and climate change.” Schnable also cited the potential improvement in the ability of farmers to select what varieties or hybrids to plant in a particular field in given year, as well as better predict yields to reduce price volatility.

Sally Mackenzie, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the “Decadal Vision” can help communicate the goals and realities of plant science to a public hungry for information. She noted that scientists don’t necessarily see themselves as communicators.

“They stand in front of classroom, but not necessarily in front of the public,” she said.

“The average citizen really wants to know what they can believe,” she said, citing in particular information about genetically modified foods. “We need to put time into providing that information. I think Americans in general strive to be at the cutting edge.”


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