BSPP News Summer 2001 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 39, Summer 2001 

David Baulcombe FRS

Congratulations to Professor David Baulcombe, who was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society on 14th May 2001. David is a senior scientist in the Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, and the current head of the Laboratory. He was honoured for his outstanding contributions to the inter-related areas of plant-virus interaction, gene silencing and disease resistance. 

Editorial: "The price of freedom (from disease) is eternal vigilance"

As if UK farming didn't have enough problems already, the foot-and-mouth epidemic has been the worst of the many recent crises to have struck the industry. It also caused the greatest destruction to the British countryside since the outbreak of the highly aggressive form of Dutch elm disease in the mid-1970's. What can plant pathologists learn from the experiences of veterinary and medical pathologists, and vice-versa? Similar epidemiological principles underlie the spread of foot-and-mouth, Dutch elm disease and other destructive diseases, such as plague, seal distemper and cereal take-all.

The links between the epidemiology of plant and animal diseases will be explored in BSPP's December meeting, 'Invasion and Persistence', which will be a tremendous opportunity for researchers specialising in these different organisms to meet and share their expertise. 

Will the pain inflicted on the farming industry by the process of eradicating foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) be worthwhile? The experience of plant pathologists should perhaps cause their veterinary colleagues to be pessimistic. Long-distance dispersal of propagules is important in re-establishing plant diseases in areas from which they were absent and in causing epidemics on susceptible crops. The annual dispersal of yellow rust spores from north-west China to the Yellow River plain is an example of the former process, and the long-distance of movement of cereal mildew clones in Europe an example of the latter. The ever-increasing pace of world trade and trans-continental movement of people is increasing the rate of spread of human and
animal diseases. Sadly, therefore, we may expect the recent outbreak of FMD to be just the first of a series of epidemics in the UK and in other countries from which FMD is currently absent. The disease is now widely-dispersed world-wide; most governments take effective steps to stamp it out, but a few do not. 

Unless much more rigorous steps are taken to stop imports of potentially infected meat, leather and other animal products at ports of entry, FMD will be a regular, unwelcome visitor to the UK. 

Perhaps veterinary pathologists should learn how to help farmers and their livestock live with this only moderately harmful disease, just as arable farmers have learnt to live with yellow rust, mildew and the rest. 

Is anybody listening to scientists? 

So far, science has made absolutely no impact on the general election campaign. Perhaps that's not surprising, when changes to schools, hospitals, police and transport may have an almost immediate impact on people's lives, while the benefits of science often take decades to be felt by the general public. As a long-term investment, science just doesn't rate in the top two-dozen political priorities. 

Nothing daunted, BSPP and other societies affiliated to the Institute of Biology have defined a set of priorities for policy on science. No prizes for guessing that the top two priorities in the IoB's survey were the state and status of UK research and closely linked to the first priority, researchers' remuneration and career prospects. The replies that the IoB received from the political parties were encouraging on the lesser priorities but disappointing as regards the top priorities. Lord Sainsbury, for the Government, only touched on researchers' pay and conditions in connection with the private/public 'Brain Gain' scheme, which will benefit only a few star performers, but not the bulk of the UK's still excellent science community. Mr Richard Page MP, for the Conservative Party, did not comment on researchers' conditions at all while Dr Evan Harris MP, for the Liberal Democrats, clearly recognises the problem, but is unlikely to get the opportunity to do anything about it. 

The lesson for scientists is clear. We may moan about pay, conditions and job security, but it's only when politicians realise that the crisis in science is not only a long-term issue (e.g. as it affects the prospects for industry being able to recruit highly qualified staff one or two decades hence) but is also a short-term, bread-and-butter issue that affects hundreds of thousands of voters, that they will take any notice of the crisis in scientific careers. On 8th June, ask yourself, "who is my new MP?", then "where is my writing paper?" and "do I have a first-class stamp?" 

James Brown

Letter to the Editor: MAFF Studentship Scheme

In your Spring 2001 edition, No. 38, you printed a letter from Professor G R Dixon in which he stated that the MAFF Post Graduate Studentship Scheme was apparently being resurrected after MAFF was persuaded to reconsider its decision to end the Scheme. 

In 1998 Dr Jack Cunningham, while Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided to wind down the PGS from October 1999 as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review.  In November 1998 the new Minister, Nick Brown, reassessed the issue.  He concluded that the decision to end the PGS should stand, and that responsibility for research training fell to others such as the Research Councils and DFEE and was not prominent in the Department's aims. 

Therefore, the Scheme was (and remains) closed to new entrants and we have no plans to either reopen it or to create a successor scheme. 

Yours sincerely 
Chief Scientist, MAFF 

I have been informed that negotiations regarding the MAFF Studentship Scheme are continuing with a third party. Professor Dixon wishes to respond to Dr Shannon's letter when this position is clarified.