Building a vision for the future – a roadmap for UK plant science


Building a vision for the future –
a roadmap for UK plant science

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Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Development of a roadmap for the future of UK plant sciences is vitally important, and intensive activity by the UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) is now carrying this forward. It will have wide resonance internationally, reflecting UK scientific excellence and the need to address urgent global challenges. Here, Alessandro Allegra from the Royal Society of Biology and Dr Rick Mumford from Fera Science Ltd (and chair of the UKPSF) set out the background and important progress being made in 2016.

By Alessandro Allegra & Dr Rick Mumford

Since it was established in 2011, the UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) has provided a unified voice and a forum for the whole UK plant sciences community. As a special interest group of the Royal Society of Biology, the UKPSF brings together the breadth of the UK plant sciences sector to increase understanding of the significance of plant sciences and formulate a coordinated strategy and vision that will be used to inform policy.

As part of this effort, in 2014 the UKPSF published a major report, UK Plant Science: Current status and future challenges (UK Plant Sciences Federation, 2014). Prepared in consultation with more than 300 scientists and other representatives of the UK plant science community, it characterized the key challenges facing plant science, identified strategic priorities and made recommendations to build on existing strengths, fill critical gaps and guarantee the UK’s success in meeting the challenges ahead. The report highlighted the importance of focusing on four key areas: funding, translation (i.e. taking basic plant science research through to practical applications), education and regulations.

Working groups were established to explore each of these areas in further detail and make specific recommendations. Following the working groups’ analysis and reports (individual reports are available here), a number of key recommendations were made. The one identified as being the highest priority was the development of a roadmap for the future of UK plant sciences, and a project was launched at the end of 2015 to complete this task. Notably, the relevance of this is much wider, and Prof. Richard Flavell (a former director of the John Innes Centre in the UK, and now Chief Scientific Advisor at US biotechnology company Ceres) recently set out the compelling case for use of the approach for plant science more generally in Journal of Experimental Botany (Flavell, 2016).

What exactly is a roadmap?

A roadmap is a strategic plan that communicates the necessary steps required to meet desired goals. Roadmapping is a powerful technique, initially pioneered by communications-equipment company Motorola in the 1970s, for planning an organization’s technological capabilities to ensure they meet its commercial or strategic goals. This approach has since been used in a variety of high-tech sectors across industry and government worldwide, including in a number of scientific sectors.

A notable recent example is A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK published by the Technology Strategy Board, the UK’s innovation agency (now known as Innovate UK). The roadmap was produced by an independent panel of experts from across industry, government and academia, for the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It set out a shared vision for realizing the potential of synthetic biology in the UK and has been seen as essential in helping to develop this new area of science, to the extent that the roadmap has evolved into a strategic national plan, Biodesign for the bioeconomy: UK synthetic biology strategic plan 2016
Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, 2016).

Roadmaps are considered to be key enablers for strategy building, as they allow for the incorporation of perspectives and expertise gathered from a full range of stakeholders. An important part of the process is determining the various routes to deliver the identified goals. This is done by identifying the links between them and the relevant stakeholders, challenges, opportunities, underpinning science, technology and innovation, as well as any enablers or resources (e.g. funding, regulation and training).

Scope and initial steps forward

The UK is internationally recognized for its excellence in plant science and as such is well positioned to help provide solutions across a range of global challenges facing the planet now and in the future. Plant science has a central role to play in our future food security, the conservation of biodiversity, sustaining ecosystem services, improving global health and mitigating against global climate change. By creating a roadmap the UKPSF aims to identify how the UK plant science community can help meet these challenges, focusing resources and energy onto a defined range of short-, mid- and long-term goals, and identifying the pathways required to achieve them.

By involving a wide range of stakeholders in the process, not only will the roadmap identify the most prominent trends and drivers in plant science, but it will also identify any linkages that are missing and highlight any potential areas for collaboration between stakeholder groups. The roadmap will provide evidence to support strategic decisions on investment, research, development, training, policy and public engagement necessary to ensure a diverse, vibrant and innovative UK plant science sector, capable of meeting current and future challenges.

The project is being carried out with the help of expert facilitation from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), part of the University of Cambridge, one of the world’s leading centres for research and practice in technology roadmapping. Over 250 representatives from a wide variety of stakeholder groups were invited to take part in the roadmapping exercise. These included researchers from academia, government and private research organisations; government policy makers and funding agencies; charities and NGOs; and industry (including representatives from the agri-food, retail, biotech and agro-chemical sectors).

A first draft – feedback needed

Feedback from stakeholders was used as the starting point for two workshops, organized in March 2016 in London and Edinburgh and facilitated by the IfM. These provided an environment which allowed those assembled to interact and engage with the process – participants were able to feed in their own views, but also review and challenge those of others, and this input was captured in a structured way to facilitate further analysis. As well as discussing the overall picture, a number of specific themes were identified and examined in greater detail, resulting in the creation of draft strategic plans for each theme.

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Photo: Royal Society of Biology.

The outputs from the workshops were combined with further research and additional written input received from others unable to attend the events. This combined output was used to create a first draft of the roadmap, and an early outline analysis of this was presented at the PlantSci 2016 conference held in April at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. The key purpose of this exercise was to broaden the community involved and elicit further feedback and input. There was considerable interest and very useful feedback from conference attendees, including that received during a lively and stimulating open-floor discussion session (the full presentation and discussion has been made available by Journal of Experimental Botany here). This included strong support from those engaged with inspiring young people still at school, the next generation of scientists. For more about this aspect, see the companion article by Harriet Truscott (Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme).

Building a Vision for the future- Img 2
Photo: Royal Society of Biology.

Solutions to the world’s great challenges

Analysis and drafting of the final version continues, alongside an ongoing dialogue with the plant sciences community at large, captured through meetings, presentations and online media. Great efforts are being made to ensure that engagement with stakeholders is sustained throughout the process, as the value of any roadmapping effort comes not just from the final output, but also from the process itself. In the end, the success of the roadmap will be judged not only by what it recommends but also through the validation of its findings and recommendations by a broad and representative community of stakeholders, who can buy into a shared strategic vision because it was created through a transparent, inclusive process with which they were engaged.

Ensuring inclusivity and engagement with the plant science community are not the only challenges. In crafting the final version it is also essential to ensure that while we are creating a roadmap that is UK-focused, it addresses global challenges and recognizes the place UK plant sciences play within the international community. Likewise while the roadmap is being built for plant science, it must be interdisciplinary and recognize that working across different disciplines and bringing in expertise from other sectors is essential. Ultimately for the roadmap to succeed it must demonstrate that this exercise isn’t simply about supporting plant scientists, but about creating a future where UK plant science can play its full part in providing solutions to the world’s great challenges.


UKPSF would like to acknowledge the following organisations for their support of its activities: the Royal Society of Biology, Society for Experimental Biology, British Society for Plant Pathology, Biochemical Society, and Gatsby Charitable Foundation.


Flavell R. 2016. Making plant science purposeful and relevant to all. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3186–3187

Synthetic Biology Leadership Council. 2016. Biodesign for the bioeconomy: UK synthetic biology strategic plan 2016. Synthetic Biology Leadership Council.

UK Plant Sciences Federation. 2014. UK plant science: current status and future challenges. A report by the UK Plant Sciences Federation (January 2014). Society of Biology.

UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group. 2012. A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK (July 2012). Technology Strategy Board on behalf of UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group.

Category: Science news

Alessandro Allegra & Dr Rick Mumford

Alessandro Allegra is Senior Science Policy Adviser at the Royal Society of Biology, working on research policy, science funding and evaluation, and scientific advice to policy-making. The Royal Society of Biology provides a single unified voice for biology in the UK.

Dr Rick Mumford is chair of the UKPSF and Director of Science at Fera Science Ltd, which supplies scientific solutions, evidence and advice across the agri-food supply chain. A plant virologist by training, Dr Mumford is a leading plant health scientist with over 20 years of experience.