Identifying the key questions facing plant science

Dr Cerian Webb

Associate Lecturer Cerian Webb joined an international panel of scientists to identify 100 of the most important questions facing plant science, ranging from how plants can contribute to tackling climate change, to plant-defence priming and how cells change in response to the environment.

The initiative identifies key research priorities that will help tackle the global challenges of climate change, the biodiversity crises and feeding a growing population in a sustainable way.

Dr Webb, who specialises in mathematical modelling of pathogens and disease, said: “We know lots of insect development is driven by climate so as it gets warmer northern climates have become more hospitable. This paper highlights how climate change is already an issue, with the global mean annual temperature more than one degree warmer than pre-industrial levels, and points to research which is needed to mitigate the impact of continued global warming on food security and the natural environment.” 

Inspired by pandemic modelling

Dr Webb joined the panel during lockdown. Her input on the 100 questions pointed to the coordinated response to the pandemic and modelling of potential impact; and proposed equivalent modelling to answer questions on potential crop and tree diseases and understand what we might need to do to mitigate or tackle it.

The panel included 20 plant scientists and industry experts from 15 nations worldwide and revisited research from 2011 to reflect on progress in plant science and re-evaluate priorities. They horizon-scanned for new areas of pressing research and included voices from historically excluded communities.

The project gathered more than 600 questions about plant science, from botanically curious members of the public to scientific and industrial leaders around the world. From their debates and discussions, the panel whittled them down to 100 and provide explanations of why each question is important.

Increasing focus on climate change

The research shows how a global community of plant scientists, with a wide range of expertise, view the strategic priorities for plant research and offers insights for policy development and funding priorities. Together the questions demonstrate how focussing on climate change, community and protecting plant life has become increasingly important for plant science over the past decade.

The paper notes: “The world’s growing population needs plant science to help deliver safe and reliable food, fuel, building materials, textiles and paper; but global inequalities exacerbated by a changing climate mean these basic requirements are frequently not realised equitably. Equally, plants provide a critical avenue for climate change deceleration.

“This illustrates the collaborative and international need for long-term funding of plant science research, alongside the broad community-driven efforts to actively ameliorate and halt climate change, while adapting to its consequences.”

Dr Webb, who is a member of the Epidemiology and Modelling Group in the Department of Plant Sciences, joined the European expert panel, bringing expertise in modelling a range of agricultural and forest pests and diseases. She introduced the idea of using text analytics to filter the questions and support comparison of the key themes between regional panels.

The project was interdisciplinary and while Dr Webb focused on modelling, at one stage using text analysis to produce word clouds to identify themes, others focused on how to develop more resilient plants or treatments available.

She said: “There are similarities with Newnham where there are a lot of other successful women and we can discuss our research and see the links between different areas, which widens your focus. I really value that chance to discuss my research with others.”

The paper is published in New Phytologist: One hundred important questions facing plant science: an international perspective and you can see Cerian’s word clouds in this brief overview video