Professor Chris Lamb, director, John Innes Centre
Backgrounder: The JIC is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences. Grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), its mission is to carry out fundamental and strategic research, to train scientists and to make its findings available to society.
It does this using a wide range of disciplines in the biological and chemical sciences including cell biology, biochemistry, chemistry, genetics, molecular biology, computational and mathematical biology.
Professor Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Centre since 1999, is buoyant about the future of plant and microbe research. Research underway at the world-renowned centre in Norwich could help secure the sustainability of agriculture under pressure from climate change, fungicide resistance and population growth. It also has a broad relevance to understanding the world we live in. Observations in plants could even be key to treating diseases in people. 1) What are your top three priorities as JIC director? Scientific excellence. Economic impact. High level training and career development. 2) JIC is largely supported by public and charitable finances, is there less pressure for you than at a commercial organisation? JIC is not driven by the bottom line in the way a commercial organisation is, but instead is driven by the pursuit of excellence. The pressures are significant but different.
Front line science is subject to continuing review, not just in the formal Institute Assessment Exercise (IAE) every five years, but also every time a project leader bids to a research council for research funding or submits a paper for peer review.
The pressures on performance management are substantial. There are also more research ideas than funds available to support them. Our research is a very intense and competitive enterprise. 3) What are the advantages and disadvantages of a workforce that is so densely focused on research? JIC is driven entirely by science and we therefore have the research workforce and technical skills we need to do the science we want to do. We also need strong and effective operational support to give scientists the time and energy to be as creative as possible. We share support services with the Institute of Food Research in the form of The Operations Centre, whose expertise we need to help us deliver the institute's mission. 4) The JIC is reviewed every four years and you are now coming to your eighth year as director, how many four year cycles are left in your tenure? My appointment is indefinite, so runs out at retirement age. There are things I still want to do. 5) When is your next assessment and what are you doing - what can you do - to prepare for it? The next assessment will be in 2010. JIC has received a big tick in previous IAEs for scientific excellence. In the next assessment I want to achieve an equally big tick for the economic impact of the research we do. We need to sustain the creativity and freedom of researchers to explore and achieve scientific breakthroughs, but when breakthroughs are made we also want to do more to exploit them.
I want to make sure that the significance of new knowledge is quickly explored and made accessible to potential end users, whether they are seed companies, breeders, start-up companies, major corporations or through strategic alliances with other institutes. 6) What have been your most notable successes and obstacles as director? Income has grown sharply and continues to grow strongly despite difficult trading conditions due to changes in industrial support and Defra funding.
We have been able to create headroom to bring in a new generation of outstanding young project leaders who represent the future of plant and microbial research. We can also use that headroom to support existing high performing groups through additional funding and technological resources.
Obstacles: Reduced industrial funding as the agricultural biotechnology industry underwent major restructuring.
This change also moved us a little further from industrial end users, although IP licensing activity is now picking up. New research areas such as bio-energy present new opportunities for engagement with industry.
One of the biggest obstacles for JIC is the administrative and operating framework, based on civil service procedures which are inherently not well suited to the business needs of a world leading research institute. Substantial time and effort is spent on mitigating the impact of this operational framework on scientific vitality. 7) JIC took some difficult strategic decisions in 2005 due to months of diminishing EU and industrial funding such as the losses of dozens of scientific posts, how has the new strategy fared? The Institute Assessment Exercise in 2005 was our best yet. The results led to an increase in our core support from BBSRC significantly above inflation. Our income is set to leap from £24 million to £27 million this financial year and to continue growing in coming years.
These outcomes are the result of an unremitting emphasis on scientific excellence relevant to our strategic goals. They are also the result of a willingness to take difficult decisions and embrace change where necessary.
Although our income has grown strongly, we need to develop a new generation of support from industry, government departments, the European Union and other non-research council sources.
In making the next quantum leap to build on strong continuing support from BBSRC, it will be important to have a diverse funding portfolio that is not dependent on one or two additional major alliances. 8) What is the long term strategy for growth at JIC and how far from that are you? We have no fixed target for growth of the institute. The main drivers are excellence and impact rather than growth. However, over time we can expect significant growth which will include embracing a number of new research areas and approaches to key problems such as climate change, bioenergy and environmental sustainability, as well as phasing out areas of research that have run out of steam.
If, as expected, a new generation of industry, charitable and EU funding comes into place we can anticipate a further 10 to 20 per cent growth in income on top of the growth in research council funding following our IAE validation and continuing success with research council grants.
Any additional income is important as it helps to create the financial headroom to recruit a steady stream of top flight scientists and to properly resource outstanding scientists already at the institute. 9) Which research areas will provide the bedrock for JIC's long term future? Our focus will remain cutting edge research in plant and microbial science. I anticipate future breakthroughs relevant to bio-energy, climate change and the broad sustainability agenda.
Much of our research is tackling fundamental problems such that our work can have an impact right across biology, including in medicine. For example, collaborative research with the Institute of Food Research is relevant to improving health through nutrition; other scientists are developing novel antibiotics to combat MRSA and other emerging pathogens. 10) What is the most exciting work going on at JIC in your opinion? Work by Giles Oldroyd is starting to make us think that it might be possible to make non-legumes biologically fix nitrogen by symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This could mean that crops would no longer require nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrogen fertilizers are the major energy input into agriculture and producing them generates substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Extending the range of crops able to fix nitrogen would revolutionize the potential for global sustainability and mitigating climate change.
In another area, Graham Moore has been studying wheat genetics for 20 years and has made a breakthrough in understanding the basis for this crop's genetic stability. The genetic stability of wheat is bad news if you want to introduce a gene for a key trait from a wild relative, such as for disease resistance or drought tolerance.
His discovery means that it may be possible to temporarily lower the barrier of stability to bring in novel genes to commercial cultivars, and once the desired gene has been introduced by crossing, then to revert to normal genetic stability. This has the potential to revolutionise wheat breeding worldwide for sustainability traits as well as yield and quality.