In conversation with...Professor Bill Davies

30 September 2014 - By: Sarah Blackford

SEB Magazine editor Sarah Blackford in conversation with...Professor Bill Davies

Professor Bill Davies
Professor Bill Davies

With both of us based at Lancaster University, you’d think it would be easy for Bill and I to meet for our bulletin interview. However, the truth is that when we do bump into each other these days, it’s usually at scientific meetings. The last time was at the SEB Meeting in Manchester in July this year, where his career of over 35 years was being celebrated in the session: “Roots for Global Food Security”, sponsored by the Journal of Experimental Botany, for which he was associate editor for over 20 years and editor-inchief for ten.

SB: What have been the main influences during your research career?

BD: Something I found myself emphasising more than once during our session in Manchester was the really important role that SEB has played during the development of our field over the years. For my own part, almost as soon as I arrived back in the UK to take up my position at Lancaster University, having completed my PhD in the US, I was advised by Terry Mansfield to give a paper at a session on stomata at the upcoming SEB Meeting in Stirling, Scotland. Not only did the meeting act as a catalyst for much of my future work, more importantly I started a journey where I met people who would become life-long collaborators and friends. At the Stirling meeting, besides Terry Mansfield, speakers included Hans Meidner and O.V.S Heath, all giants in the stomatal field. I am sure that meetings organised by the Environmental Physiology group and other groups have provided inspiration for plant scientists from all around the world.

SB: Tell me more about your involvement with SEB.

BD: The Plant Section’s Environmental Physiology group, for which I was convenor and a member for many years, played a major role as the forum where key discussions took place. Its influence cannot be underestimated – I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that our meetings drove much of the plant research agenda and helped to move the field forward. One influential SEB symposium meeting I recall was one that I organised with Neil Baker and Chin Ong on leaf growth. Another on ABA, organised with Lyn Jones in Birmingham in the late 1980s, focussed a lot of subsequent work on ABA and drought. At that time, SEB had a book contract with Cambridge University Press, but, with encouragement from the then SEB honorary publishing officer, Richard Firn, we negotiated a new contract with an emerging scientific publisher called BIOS. Nowadays journals tend to bring topics together in a Special Issue, but both the Cambridge and the BIOS books are still much referenced. We produced some excellent volumes on subjects as diverse as water deficits, stomata, roots, photosynthesis and photoinhibition, carbon partitioning and canopies. Lynton Incoll should be credited for much hard work and for providing inspiration in the early days of the group.

SB: Tell me about your time as editorin-chief of the Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB).

BD: When I took over as editor, I had already been involved with the JXB as an associate editor for a few years, during which time I had attended editorial board meetings to discuss its future. Coupled with the knowledge I had of SEB, I felt that the Society wasn’t getting enough out of the journal and vice versa. My feeling was that if we could adopt an approach which would mean SEB could find enough money to bring the best people to its meetings from around the world, it would benefit the SEB and its members. In order to do this, we introduced the JXB Special issue series, which goes from strength to strength and this year has produced some really useful volumes which are having a very positive influence on impact that the Journal is making. We have created a legacy for our meetings, with speakers writing papers for the special issues, bringing together the latest topical research in one volume. SEB’s investment has created a platform for communication, which helps to keep the individual disciplines buoyant. Credit to Mary Traynor and the Editorial Office team who, along with successive editors, have driven this project forward.

SB: Are there any key moments which you recall as being seminal in your career?

BD: During the ABA session at the SEB Meeting in Birmingham in the early 1990s, David Gowing presented a novel technique involving the use of split root plants, which allowed some elucidation of long-distance signalling in plants. One of our invited speakers, Brian Loveys, from CSIRO Horticulture in Adelaide, got the idea from David’s paper that targeted soil drying around roots could be used to improve grape production in the Australian wine industry, by reducing vegetative growth of vines; too many leaves can reduce fruit production and reduce the quality of the wine. This began a very fruitful collaboration and the development of some novel techniques, where deficit irrigation could be used as a management tool in the industry. With a growing world shortage of water for agriculture, this area of research continues to receive a considerable amount of attention as is evidenced by a number of contributions to the recent Manchester meeting.

SB: You’ve been doing a lot of work with researchers in China and Africa in the last decade to help address some of their drought problems, what do you consider to be the major challenges?

BD: The main driver for the work I was doing for the wine industry in Australia was economic. For China and Africa, finding ways of using less water is also important for peoples’ well-being. In addition it is also important to try to minimise the negative impact of agricultural water use on the environment. For example, working with J Zhang and many other colleagues in Europe, USA and China, we are focussing on trying to reduce the amount of water being used for crop production in Northern China. Here desertification has resulted in major social and economic problems for the local population. A major international project led by Kang Shaozhong from China Agricultural University is applying techniques in water saving agriculture to try to restore the environment and improve the quality of peoples’ lives. Recent results have proved to be very heartening. During an interesting EU project with Mark Bacon, Manuela Chaves and others, we visited one area in Morocco, a country where the government is subsidising the introduction of new micro-irrigation technology. We thought that we were on to a good science news story involving saving water, until the farmer told us that the new science and technology had enabled him to greatly reduce his work force. This at a time when there were already severe economic problems for many people in the Mediterranean region.

SB: Did this change your opinions about modern scientific intervention?

BD: What is clear is that introducing technology in isolation and without due consideration of social consequences can be naïve and potentially damaging. I am a believer in trying to make our scientific understanding work for the benefit of as broad a constituency as possible, and working appropriately with farmers can provide interesting ways ahead. Communication of new ideas and discussion of issues and opportunities is vital.

SB: How are you going about this?

BD: Wider communication to the public and particularly to young people has always been one of my passions, which is one of the reasons I supported the setting up of the SEB’s Education & Public Affairs (EPA) Section. I am really pleased with the way EPA has become embedded into the Society’s mainstream operations, organising events such as the Food Security symposium meeting in 2011. With the advent of internet technology, there are opportunities to promote science on a global basis. Lancaster has just run a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course) focussing on the issue of Food Security. We signed up 5000 people from 130 countries, something we could never have dreamed of doing just a few years ago!

SB: Finally, if you could describe yourself in a few words what would say?

BD: How about, ‘The tallest plant scientist in Britain’? But, on a more serious note, I’m a lucky guy! Academic life provides wonderful opportunities to share ideas and activity with people from some pretty interesting places. I have been fortunate enough to work across a range of disciplines and scales, interacting with great colleagues and collaborators with lots of ideas, different skills and perspectives. I’ve made some very good friends. The internationalisation of SEB over the last few decades in particular has been particularly stimulating. In my research area alone, JXB has benefitted enormously from the vision, the science and the editorial efforts of Wolfram Hartung, Ernst Steudle, Francois Tardieu, Karl-Josef Dietz, Steve Tyerman and others.

SB: It brings to mind the expression “Standing on the shoulders of giants”, which is an appropriate link back to your celebratory session at SEB this year, and a reminder that science is not only about experiments, data and technological innovation, it’s about people’s lives and social communities.

BD: A career in plant science has always been a ‘tall order’, but this is a great time to be starting a career in biology. Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal recently commented that this is first generation when a single species (ours) can determine just what sort of planet we wish our children to live on in the future. Biologists are needed to help address many of the major challenges currently facing society. I hope to continue to play a part.

Category: Plant Biology
Sarah blackford resize

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the Head of Education and Public Affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB Magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.