BSPP News Spring 2002 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 41, Spring 2002 

People and Places...? 

For the first time for many years, BSPP News has no news of members or the places where they work. This is simply because no-one sent us any! The 'People and Places' column is a good way of telling your colleagues elsewhere about progress in your work, whether in research, teaching or business, and of letting them know about notable events, whether professional or personal.

We are very happy to publish 'People and Places' contributions giving the news from where you work. Contributions from members outside Britain are especially welcome, not least because nearly 40% of the membership is from overseas. Short items about single events are every bit as welcome as longer articles giving more comprehensive news.

Please note that the deadline for the next issue of BSPP News is 10th May 2002. 

Seven years in the life of a 'retired' plant pathologist - Roy Johnson

In 1994, the year before I retired, it was suggested, by members of the BSPP Council, that I was a suitable person to take on the role of Senior Editor of Plant Pathology. It was not an idea that had occurred to me prior to this request, but my conscience dictated that I should not refuse.

Starting from 1st January 1995 I therefore found myself having to start operating an unfamiliar process. In March I retired and as I had no office, I had to set up everything to operate from my home in Shelford. This included developing a new database, as well as operating the existing DOS based database inherited from my predecessor. With just the book to help me I gradually developed an elaborate Filemaker Pro database to handle the more than 200 submitted papers that were dropping through my enlarged letterbox annually. The form letters and warning systems I developed for editors, referees and authors are still used by my successor, Richard Shattock.

Being a Senior Editor is a serious commitment and, with all the developments that were required during the five and a quarter years of my tenure, I really think it would have been virtually impossible to cope with it at the same time as a full time job, although all other Senior Editors of Plant Pathology have done just that.

If I had thought that this activity was going to be all I had to do in retirement, I would have been very much mistaken. Requests have continued to arrive to perform in many different ways, including many activities abroad. I have continued to lecture to students of plant breeding, for the course run by the John Innes Centre and University of East Anglia. I have been external examiner for a number of PhD and MSc theses.

I have also travelled widely over the globe. Such travels have included three visits to Iran, two to Mexico, two to China, one to India, one to the Philippines and several to European countries. Last year (2001) I visited Iran in May and Syria in August in connection with a regional conference on yellow rust of wheat and for editing the proceedings of the conference for publication. Most of the trips have arisen from my recognition as an international authority on breeding for disease resistance and in particular on yellow rust of wheat.

Roy in Toluca, Mexico, 1998, on his second visit as a lecturer
to the CIMMYT wheat trainees.

 It has been a wonderful experience, meeting many interesting people and seeing many beautiful places. So much travelling, editing, preparing for lectures, reviewing books and research projects has left me insufficient time to look after my garden properly. It has suffered from Armillaria mellea, which has killed many trees and shrubs, and developed a serious weed problem, with bindweed and ground elder.

Roy visiting wheat trials for yellow rust resistance, 
north-western Iran, 1996.

Now, just when I have relinquished the job of being Senior Editor and feel I have a little more free time, I have less energy to deal with it than I should have because of having developed a neurological disorder This was diagnosed in May last  year as Motor Neurone Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Although the development is slow, it has affected particularly my left hand and slightly also the right hand, preventing me from playing my piano and making several jobs more difficult than they should be.

This has not yet closed my commitments to lecturing for UEA/JIC, and next January I have been invited to Minnesota to speak with students about my thoughts on breeding for durable resistance to plant diseases. I am sure it will be another enjoyable experience.

My overall impression of being nominally retired is that I could continue to work, very continuously, in my chosen field of science for as long as I felt able. It has been a rewarding experience, and left me with many happy memories. 
Roy Johnson

Roy Johnson

Editorial - Public misunderstanding of science 

Did you recognise one of your colleagues in the picture of a Mad Scientist at the bottom of p.21 of this issue? Hopefully not - almost all members of BSPP have spent somewhere from a few months to many years working in science and realise that scientists are normal human beings, or at least, no more abnormal than a random sample of other human beings. But scientists are too often seen by non-scientists as deranged people trying to control the lives of others, with 'Frankenstein Food' and the like.

On p.18 of this issue, Phil Smith describes one way in which scientists are helping to explain what science is really about. The Teacher-Scientist Network works in schools to improve the quality of science education, for example by helping children do experiments to find out the scientific basis of even those aspects of modern life that are most taken for granted, from washing-up to gardening to taking a bath.

But is educating children any more than a Canute-like effort to turn back the rising tide of paranoia among their parents? Bad news and wild exaggerations spread (or are spread) quickly and few people can distinguish rigorous science from flimsy scare stories. So pressure groups and others encourage people to think that modern, systemic  fungicides are as harmful to wildlife as early insecticides like DDT, that GM foods make children sick and that flying organic produce halfway round the world is good for the environment.

All the more reason, then, to encourage the next generation to understand how much their future depends on careful, responsible science. The paternalistic attitudes of the not very distant past encouraged people to believe that the technical knowledge needed to make decisions about their own lives in a rapidly changing society was so complicated that they must trust experts to make the right decisions for them. As the repeated crises in the meat industry have shown, blind trust soon turns to hostility and mistrust when the experts get it wrong, as they will inevitably do from time to time.

Helping non-scientists understand how science works should increase their ability to make judgements about new scientific advances which affect their lives. It should help them make their own decisions instead of having to be guided by experts and enable them to weigh up pros and cons rationally instead of being confused by contradictory claims from self-serving parties. Indeed, 'public understanding of science' should help people to be intelligently sceptical about scientific claims rather than instinctively either credulous or suspicious. And indeed, to understand that science is a normal activity done by - generally - normal people.

James Brown