BSPP News Summer 2002 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 42, Summer 2002

The BSPP questionnaire

Last year we issued a questionnaire to members.  The major results are summarised below.  Thank you again to all who contributed. The results have been most helpful to the Board  for clarifying our priorities and our focus for the next few years. We received 144 questionnaires from members and 5 from non-members (via the web site). 66% (95 replies) of responses by members were via the web site.

70% of the responses were from members from the UK.  2 responses were anonymous. Respondents were: researchers (35%), team leaders (27%), public sector pathologists (24%), lecturers (21%), students (20%), commercial pathologists (7%), "other" (4%). The main reasons why individuals joined the society were: for BSPP publications; access to a network of plant pathologists, to keep up to date and as a source of information. Table 1 shows the detailed breakdown of responses together with the general reasons for joining, which were similar.
Non-members indicated that they would be interested in joining for contacts, new disease and other information (newsletter) and as a source of funding.

Members saw BSPP's main roles as: promoting/disseminating/exchanging information and ideas on plant pathology and promoting plant pathology and pathology research nationally and internationally (see Table 2).
The main source of information on BSPP activities was the newsletter (45 responses), fliers(26), colleagues (21) and other societies (19).  The web site did not appear to be a main source of information (11 responses). 

Table 1. Question 4: Reasons for joining the society

Join factors

Individual reasons for joining

(136 responses)

General reasons for joining

(107 responses)

 

No. (% of those responding)

No. (% of those responding)

Publications (predominantly Plant Pathology, but also MPP, on-line access to journals and receiving personal copies)

71 (52%)

50 (47%)

Network of plant pathologists (keeping in touch with peers/meeting other pathologists)

61 (45%)

37 (35%)

Keeping up to date (includes newsletter)

51 (38%)

39 (36%)

Funding (especially travel grants)

36 (26%)

23 (21%)

Conferences (including discounted fees)

32 (24%)

28 (26%)

Professional reasons (supporting the society, joining an internationally respected society, good for career)

26 (19%)

21 (20%)

BSPP services (education, web site, news of events, new disease info, support for local meetings)

11 (8%)

5 (5%)

Other

Individual reasons: competitive annual fee (cf APS), breadth of the society, work-funded subscription, no page charges for publications, links between developed/developing countries.

General: support UK plant pathology

Both: advancement of science, addressing global pathology problems.

12 (9%)

10 (9%)

Table 2. Question 6: What is BSPP's role? (110 responses)

 

No responses

% of those responding

ACT AS AN INFORMATION SOURCE (promote/disseminate/exchange ideas/information; maintain/improve delivery of information; publish high quality journals with high professional standards; host on-line symposia)

57

52%

TO PROMOTE PLANT PATHOLOGY AND PLANT PATHOLOGY RESEARCH (promote and contribute to the science of plant pathology; act as showcase/voice for UK plant pathology; promote plant pathology in developing countries and world wide)

53

48%

TO PROVIDE SERVICES FOR MEMBERS (provide grants, host events; play a key role in education, especially encouraging students in pathology careers; sponsor pathology in developing countries, including to non-members)

22

20%

TO PROVIDE SUPPORT FOR RESEARCHERS (act as a focus/lobby group)

16

15%

A NETWORK OF SCIENTISTS (people with similar interests; contact via web site)

15

14%

CONTINUE/IMPROVE CURRENT ROLE

12

11%

PROVIDE A LINK WITH OTHER SCIENTISTS (provide links with sister societies; provide a co-ordinated voice for UK Bioscience; become the leading society in the field, world-renowned, an international role)

11

10%

INFORM THE PUBLIC (within limited resources, publicise disease problems and the benefits of understanding and controlling disease)

10

9%

PROMOTE THE WHOLE OF PLANT PATHOLOGY (support traditional and molecular plant pathology, provide a balanced conference programme, provide a forum for Plant Pathology to remain an integrated and relevant discipline; more commercial plant pathology)

5

5%

OTHER COMMENTS (BSPP is more interactive/an alternative to US journals; be like APS but with a European focus; provide a place to formulate a biosafety ethic; bring plant pathology up to date with molecular/genomic work)

9

8%

Jane Chard and Ian Toth, Publicity Committee

 


Voice of the Future

I was recently invited by the British Association for Lung Research (BALR), as an Affiliated Society of the Institute of Biology to attend the 'Voice of the Future' conference in London.  This meeting was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the IoB Affiliated Societies were allocated places.  It was held in the impressive surroundings of the Royal Geological Society.  It was essentially a Science Question Time for young researchers who were given the chance to quiz members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology on issues concerning our future.  Delegates came from a broad range of disciplines and backgrounds: Universities, Industry, research councils and representative bodies such as the Institute of Biology. 

The morning session began with the Question Time. The panel consisted of Dr Ian Gibson MP (Labour), Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Tony Harris MP (Labour), Mark Hoban MP (Conservative), Dr Brian Iddon MP (Labour), Tony McWalter MP (Labour) and Lord Lewis of Newnham (crossbench member of the House of Lords). 

The first topic was the recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) carried out in 2001.  These are used to determine the research strengths of UK Universities and with it, allocations of funds are made.  Questions came from several newly appointed lecturers who raised the issue that performing well in the RAE is made especially difficult without an established reputation, or sufficient publication record, and that the present system does not encourage activities which do not generate income by raising the RAE score.  The panel agreed that this was indeed a problem and suggested that money should be made available to 'kick start' young academics at the beginning of their careers.  It was also agreed that RAEs in themselves are hugely expensive and for Universities which consistently perform well, they may be an unnecessary expense. It was suggested that in these universities RAEs could be reduced to every 7-10 years, leaving more money available to concentrate on those institutions performing less well. 

The next major topics for discussion became linked together through a series of questions. Initially the panel were questioned on 'Women in Science' and this progressed to the general public's view of scientists and science as a career. Individual questions were not answered directly by the panel, but instead up to four or five were taken at a time which allowed the topic of discussion to change quite significantly before the politicians were able to give an answer. 

Everyone agreed that there are still very few women at the top of the tree, especially in chemistry, physics and engineering, but none of the delegates who asked the questions had ever encountered sexism themselves in the workplace.  Positive discrimination as a way of putting more women in senior posts was raised as a possibility but the panel was split on its benefits, and personally I feel that promotion should be on merit alone.  The general feeling was that instead, targeting girls at school and providing role models for them may increase the numbers of female researchers, especially in chemistry and physics.  In biological sciences there is not the same problem of recruiting women into university courses and beyond to PhD level, the trouble seems to be how academic research, RAEs etc, can accommodate a career break for a family.  The point that I felt summed up the discussion, and would be applicable to all careers, is that the best thing for women's equality would be for paternity breaks to become the norm. 

From these discussions came questions asking if science is an attractive career for school leavers and do we as scientists have an image problem with the public? We were described as nerds (by the delegates themselves, rather than the panel!) and it was felt that we may be seen as disconnected from society in this country. One delegate who has recently moved to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands commented that if cab drivers ask her what she does for a living, they are far more enthusiastic and inquisitive as to what her job entails in Europe than she has ever come across in the UK. What I took from these discussions is that if we want to improve our image we have to communicate more ourselves, both on the larger scale through effective media coverage and education, but also personally by telling people what we do and discussing issues which arise from it, rather than giving the impression that it is too complicated to explain.

Finally, we got round to the most obvious topic of the day, money. As expected, this produced the most heated questioning, but unfortunately, the least optimistic answers. We started discussing student debt and the problems of repaying student loans on a postdoctoral salary. One of the panellists put himself in the firing line when he commented that student debt should not be seen as a problem when you know that eventually you will be in a job earning enough to have made it all worthwhile.  The audience reacted very strongly to this with lots of hands shooting up to disagree. Whilst all of the panel were extremely sympathetic to our grievances, no one could offer us definite answers as to whether more money could be made available for PhD students or academic research. The story seems to be the same throughout careers such as teaching and nursing, everyone deserves more but there is only a finite pot of money to go round and Universities will have to look more and more into how they bring in funding from the private sector. The most surprising comment of the day from one aggrieved delegate was that refuse collectors in Westminster earn £33,000 a year...

After lunch (held next door at the Royal Society of Chemistry) we came back for the afternoon session with the Rt. Hon. Tony Benn, former MP and Cabinet Minister responsible for Industry, Energy and Technology. His talk on the links between Science and Government was extremely entertaining with many anecdotes from his time as a Minister and he concluded by taking questions from the audience. Many of his views related to the use of science in the military and the nuclear industry, which led to a few heated questions from the physicists present. One of the last questions put to him was to describe the most influential discovery in science during his lifetime. His answer, maybe slightly surprisingly for a man of his generation, was Information Technology which has influenced so many disciplines.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole day and I am grateful to the Institute of Biology and the BALR to have been given the opportunity to attend, and to the organizational abilities of the Royal Society of Chemistry's Stephen Benn and Julie Smart.  I was pleased that members of the Select Committee took the time to discuss these issues with us and listened to our views, but ultimately I came away with the knowledge that there are no short term solutions to the major issue which affects a substantial amount of young scientists, that of sufficient funding and job security.

Rebecca Hodges
British Association of Lung Research

This report was kindly provided by the Institute of Biology.