Kicking the Photon Along the Road

We eat the energy which comes from photons, which are the elementary particles making up light. This happens because photons of light with sufficient energy knock electrons into a higher energy state within the green plant pigment known as chlorophyll. These are then used as the energy needed to manufacture complex molecules like starch, proteins and fats. This is an old story but it has a new and exciting twist.

In my job I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the challenges connected with how to build a sustainable future. Most of the time the solutions which many well-meaning people bring to my door just don’t add up or they are insufficiently ambitious. More often than not they create a new way of doing things which just moves the problem of a sustainable future elsewhere. They are not solutions. They kick the can along the road.

The challenges we have will not be solved by doing a little here and a bit more there. Tinkering with our current systems of old production won’t be enough.

For example, one of the biggest challenges we face is how to change the energy balance of agriculture. Currently, we expend about 10 calories of fossil fuel to generate one calorie of food. This is unsustainable not just in a small way but to quite an alarming extent. If we are to tackle this problem farming will need to be completely re-imagined within the next 30 years or so.

Such a huge challenge calls for us to take this back to its basics. How can we transfer photons of light from the sun into edible energy at maximum efficiency? This is a really interesting scientific and engineering question but it is also important and answering it might just be the saviour of humanity.

Until a few days ago I thought that “vertical farming” which was the answer which some people had brought to my door as a solution was just another of those ideas designed to kick the can along the road. This was because, after doing some research, I had concluded that it would always be more efficient to use a photon coming directly from the sun to energize electrons in chlorophyll than to use a photon generated by a light powered by electricity. The loss of efficiency involved in generating the electricity, transmitting it to the point of use and then translating the power of electrons into photons would always make this a pretty unattractive option for future food production. But I’m beginning to think I might be wrong.

“Vertical Farming” is the idea that we can grow plants within enclosed spaces, often including high-rise warehouses, using artificial light instead of the sun. Is it really the future way that our fruit and veg will be produced? I think it could be and here is why.

On a recent visit to a pilot vertical farming unit run by a company called Intelligent Growing Solutions housed at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee I saw what can be achieved by an innovative, never say die, approach. They have worked through the problem of how to translate a photon into edible food. Using the best expertise, much of it in Scottish Universities, they have solved probably the biggest problem in vertical farming. This is concerned with how to improve the efficiency of the Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) used to generate the photons of light from electricity.

They have re-imagined the problem and on the back of their key innovation they are systematically re-engineering the processes of plant production. This draws on the world’s leading technologies in robotics, storage and transport solutions, and plant biology. By intelligently integrating these growing systems with grid electrical generation, including placing them in the right places like in the centre of cities, they can reduce their power costs to a fraction of normal prices. By containing the farms inside buildings they can optimise the atmosphere for plant growth by enhancing CO2 levels and ensuring it is always at the best temperature. Sealed containment eliminates disease (hence no need for pesticides!) and sensors inspect the plants to detect stress so that they can adjust the growing conditions to be just right for the plants. Nitrate and phosphate fertilizers are provided in exactly the quantities need by the plants and there is no waste and, therefore, no environmental impact.  Robots will busily move pollen around to fertilise plants like beans or soft fruits.

All this will happen in stacked plant trays each of which is tended carefully, and untiringly, by robots around the clock. The plants will grow perhaps at least twice as fast as they do in the field. There is no need for heavy machinery to plough, sow and harvest. Where once many human hands were needed none are now needed. Where once the plants had to put up with all that the weather and climate would throw at them now they are to be cosseted and their every need catered for. Where once the produce was packed into trucks to be carted around Europe it can be produced next to the point of sale. Where once vast tracts of land were needed, the land footprint is very small. Where once only a single crop was possible each year on that vast area of land now perhaps four or five crops of equivalent size will be produced on the much smaller area. Where once we were oxidising valued soils such as the fenland peatlands of East Anglia to produce vegetables (and a lot of CO2 to boot) these can be returned to the function of storing carbon and hosting wildlife. Where once we produced a lot of food which was wasted we can almost completely eliminate this waste.

All this is made possible by one, quite simple, but very clever innovation with how a 3-phase electrical supply can be adapted to feed power to LEDs. This innovation alone is very likely to pop up in other places too. For example, it could completely revolutionise how electricity is routed around factories and even our homes. There is something quite poetic about a bunch of people who are brought together by an entrepreneur with an imaginative idea about farming which could turn out to change all our lives in positive and unimagined ways. This is how innovation works and it’s quite magical.

This doesn’t seem to me to be like kicking the can along the road. But one thing worries me. This is happening now in Scotland, driven mainly by the brilliant minds of people mostly in Scottish universities and institutions, as well as a Scottish entrepreneur. However, will Scotland be the country to scale this up and make it real? Will Scotland be the place that the world turns to as the great innovator in vertical farming, like Finland has been for mobile phone technology? This will only happen if the major capital investments needed to turn this into an industrial reality are made in Scotland. Otherwise perhaps we’ve just kicked the photon along the road, but at least we’ll have the great satisfaction of knowing we’ve just done something really great towards saving the planet.


Ian Boyd (second from right) pictured inside the newly commissioned vertical farming facility at the James Hutton Institute with (left to right) Douglas Elder (Project Manager at Intelligent Growth Solutions), Colin Campbell (CEO, James Hutton Institute) and Henry Aykroyd, founder and director of Intelligent Growth Solutions.



Insect declines in Germany – is seeing really believing?

I once re-homed a dog which had a pathological hatred of brushes. She had clearly been mentally scarred early in her life by being beaten with a brush. We are all scarred to some extent by our past experiences. One of my mental scars concerns the interpretations placed on historical data suggesting trends through time in natural processes, also known as “time series”. This may seem a somewhat odd aversion to have but let me explain why it has been important to me as a scientist by using a recent example concerning the declines of insects in Germany.

When I began my PhD in the early 1980s the research field I was working in was dominated by a simple idea. This was that as populations of long-lived mammals declined they compensated by beginning to reproduce earlier in life and by producing more offspring. Much of the evidence to support this came from the observation of trends in these reproductive features through time.

But there was a problem. Almost all the trends were going down. I cannot ever recall seeing an upward trend in these data. Everybody thought this was indicative of big problems. For me, as a young researcher, I was worried by this and found myself out of step with the received wisdom. I eschewed including these time series in my studies although at the time I wasn’t sure why.

The observation of these trends was important because it was a dominant force in the arguments being used for the population management of some of our most iconic species such as whales, seals, wolves, bears and elephants. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person who was worried by this and eventually much of the empirical picture was exposed as an artefact.

Ever since then I’ve been very sceptical whenever anybody presents a time series of data. This includes everything from tree ring data purporting to show trends in climate to trends in the abundance of birds, bees or butterflies and moths across the British countryside. Sometimes I feel I could write a whole book about just how misleading the data about trends can be. And yet, the simple messages they carry mean we lap them up. A wiggly ascending or descending line on a graph carries a lot of beguiling messages. But are they true?

So when I read the recent paper published in PLoS One ( showing declines in insect populations in Germany I started from a sceptical viewpoint. I started from a position of knowing what I needed to see in the paper which would convince me that the trend was real. The Guardian had already reported the simple, beguiling message as ‘Warning of “ecological Armageddon” after dramatic plunge in insect numbers’.  Did I see all that I needed in that paper to convince me that the simple message was correct?  Not quite.

The authors had a sample of 96 data points from 63 sites across Germany. They had trapped insects using a standard method between 1990 and 2016 and then had plotted the total biomes of insects trapped through time. As I read the paper I began to like it. My prejudices were being challenged and weakened.

A strength was that not many sites were sampled on multiple occasions. Some were sampled two or three times. This helps to get rid of a nasty feature of time series data known as autocorrelation. So far, so good.

The authors had also gone to great lengths to describe the data using a robust statistical method. This had helped them to look for relationships with weather and changes in land use, all important for building a picture which might convince a sceptic like me.

The results which emerged were quite startling. In 27 years, on average, there had been a 75% decline in insect biomass. Even if I thought the heavy-weight statistics might have built some form of artefact in to the result, the magnitude of the change was so large that it would be difficult to see this as a statistical artefact. I was convinced that the authors claim of declining insect biomass in the sites they had observed was real.

But when I turned to the Guardian article and saw how this result was being interpreted I started to get worried. Technically, the paper showed declines across 64 sites which had been chosen specifically for their conservation value. These were probably mostly relatively pristine habitats. But people were now saying this was telling us about how insects were declining across the whole countryside.  Let me explain why this is misleading.

There are basically two reason. The first concerns what might be called a founder effect and the second concerns how representative the habitats sampled in the paper were of German countryside as a whole.

In Europe the Habitats Directive has encouraged us to scout the country for sites where wildlife seems to be in a relatively natural and abundant state and then to put a protective ring around them. This is a good thing to do but we need to be aware that these sites are not going to stay the same through time. In an environment where there are lots of dynamic processes going on like weather, land use, natural succession and many more, including natural dynamics, change will be the norm. The authors of the paper did a valiant job of trying to recognise this but were very constrained in what they could do to compensate by the lack of control sites chosen at random. This effect, is brought about by the state of these sites when they were founded.

In these circumstances there are only really two likely directions for future change in a set of protected sites which already have high wildlife abundance: they can remain much as they were when they became protected or the abundance of wildlife declines. It is much less likely that abundance will be seen to increase in such a set of sites. It’s hard to make pristine sites more pristine although I acknowledge that management and restoration is an important part of the current philosophy of conservation and could be expected to lead to some increases in measurements like insect biomass.

The second reason concerns representativeness. The sites in Germany were almost certainly a highly biased representation of the German countryside as a whole. A fairer sample would have compensated for these high quality sites by also choosing sites on land which had been cleared of its wildlife. Tracking them in parallel through time using the same methods would almost certainly have produced a very different result.

Can the results in this paper then be used to extrapolate across the whole countryside? I don’t think so. The sites reported in the study are likely to be extremely unrepresentative of German countryside.

Indeed, taking both these problems together, if one was to have thought deeply about this study in advance I suspect that the eventual result would not have been a surprise at all (at least qualitatively if not quantitatively). This is purely because of how the sites were selected.

In my mind, therefore, the idea that there are large changes in insect populations across Germany remains unproven. Of course, it could be correctly reflecting wider trends but this study does not provide that result. Other studies have shown declines but remember what I have said about the multitude of problems with time-series. Were all those other studies fair tests? Almost certainly not and few that I have seen are a fair test. An accumulation of many unfair tests does not amount to a fair test. Indeed, it probably amounts to the creation of an illusion.

We are all victims of our own prejudices. The scars I carry remind me constantly of the dangers of prejudiced interpretations of data. Like everybody else I want to really know what is going on across the countryside but unlike those who uncritically lap up information like that in the German study I also worry terribly about just how blind we are. I cannot bring myself to believe a lot of the data used to track change. The best data we have comes from the BTO, and that shows a mixed picture, but we need to become a lot better at producing synoptic measures of changes which truly capture the total picture. Our work in Defra (including collaborations across the Environment Agency, Natural England, CEFAS and JNCC) on earth observation, when mixed in with the kind of data produced by the BTO, promises much when it comes to putting us on the right track. I want to see us genuinely moving to a new way of systematically measuring and monitoring the environment in ways which can meaningfully track progress.

The lesson from the paper about insect declines in Germany is not about insects at all. Instead, it is about ourselves and whether we want to perceive the real world defined by systematically-gathered, reliable data or whether we prefer to believe our own prejudices and design the data to fit them.

Opportunities too good to miss

As the calendar rotates through to the October, the tachometer shows that I have completed five years as the Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra. Some would say that is enough. Any academic who becomes immersed in government for too long runs the risk of becoming a part of the system, rather than a challenger to the system.

In February, I said that I would leave Defra at the end of August. However clearly this has not been the case and I would like to explain why.

There are many reasons. Some are personal, but most concern what is happening in and around the Defra group and how much that excites me. Much is changing across the scientific landscape at present. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be established and there are the new opportunities from the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. In the whole of my career, the opportunities have never been greater for research to deliver meaningful progress.

The Defra group is not in a position to benefit directly from these initiatives, but it can benefit indirectly. The reason for this is because of much that has been happening behind the scenes here over the past few years. From once being a significant sponsor of research, the Defra group has had to change to become a better user of research. It is becoming a customer, rather than a supplier or sponsor of research. As a customer, the Defra group needs to lead the intellectual agenda with respect what questions should be tackled by research. For the first time in my experience at Defra, the research community is really in a mood to listen to what challenges government departments such as this.

The Defra group is responsible for delivering the basics of life – food, water and air – in sufficient quantities and to a demanding quality standard. As a consequence, we have to deal with some of the most difficult questions facing people and the planet. These include how to mitigate the effects of climate change, sustain food and water supplies, cope with the spiralling demand for natural resources and minimise the poisoning of the environment, and ourselves, by pollution. It’s a massive and critically important agenda. In future, our way of life is going to depend on decisions made within the corridors of Defra group organisations. Balancing the delivery of goods from the environment in the long term with the demands for economic growth in the short term will always be difficult and we need the help of the best intellectual minds Britain can muster.

Like many others, I cannot easily walk away from these challenges and especially when opportunities are opening up which could ratchet us along the track to improvement. I occupy a position in the clockwork which makes this process work. The baton I carry needs to be passed on eventually, but it needs to happen at the right time. When I arrived in government, it took me some time to fully understand where I sat in the clockwork of the government system and how to influence it. With all the changes going on in the research sector and also with the UK exiting the EU, and the challenges and opportunities that throws up, this doesn’t feel like the best time for me to pass that baton on.

Consequently, I have agreed to stay on for at least another year and, with the support of the department, to pursue an ambitious agenda.

The value of scientific opinion?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published guidance on how to incorporate uncertainty in to scientific assessment[i].  On the plus side, this is a thorough attempt to bring objectivity to the description of uncertainty and to minimise subjective opinion. On the negative side it could eliminate the opinion of scientists from the policy debate. Where uncertainty exists, this could result in risk-aversion in policy-making.

As a scientist, I believe it is vital that public policy is underpinned by a foundation of evidence. However scientists must also acknowledge that policy makers look through many lenses when making their decisions and science needs to play its part as one of these lenses. It is therefore important that the relationship between uncertainty in the evidence and risk to policy is understood.

While scientists are used to dealing with the uncertainties inherent within their evidence, these uncertainties present a real tension when being used to underpin the more black and white, yes or no, world of policy . Government departments, like Defra, use evidence to guide rather than to determine policy in areas of uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty comes in two basic forms – aleatory and epistemic. Aleatory uncertainty is the natural variability in a system and is often irreducible even through research. For example, the yield of wheat per hectare from British farms has a tendency to vary among years. In contrast, epistemic uncertainty is what we don’t know, or gaps in our knowledge and is amenable to being reduced through research. For example, wheat yields from British farms have been, on average, static for about the last decade and we don’t know why. It is important to understand the difference between these forms of uncertainty in the context of evidence assessments for policy making.

This is well illustrated by the recent EFSA document which is aimed mainly at documenting epistemic uncertainty. Evidence assessments are now used widely to produce ‘scientific opinion’ in an attempt to advise policy-makers about the scientific consensus view on a subject. EFSA uses them a lot – e.g. for assessing the safety of pesticides or GM organisms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is another body that has done this on a massive scale to provide an assessment of the evidential basis for anthropogenic climate change.

These assessments needed to include opinion because we know that the way evidence is generated through the scientific process is itself subject to aleatory uncertainty. For example, the results from many experimental studies carried out in the fields of psychology and biomedicine are known to be unreliable[ii]. Including just the epistemic component of uncertainty using this literature could produce a biased assessment. Among all the studies done in a particular field, it can be impossible to discriminate the reliable from unreliable studies using systemic, rule-based assessment. In the environmental sciences, where studies are often impossible to replicate and where less reliable inferential methods are often used, this problem is probably even more profound.

Within this context, the EFSA attempt to corral and upgrade the assessment process by being clearer about how uncertainty is being dealt with is commendable. However, nobody should imagine that this will solve the problem about how scientific evidence is used to define the risk associated with food in Europe. Beliefs and values are as prevalent within scientists carrying out assessments as they are in non-scientists. The kind of processes being suggested by EFSA, while necessary, still should not ignore scientific opinion. The EFSA guidance carries the risk of systematising the expression of uncertainty by focussing purely on the state of knowledge, the epistemic component of uncertainty. Recognising the existence also of the aleatory components of uncertainty in scientific assessments is essential. It brings humanity to the discourse between science and society, and science and policy.

[i] Guidance on Uncertainty in EFSA Scientific Assessment, EFSA Scientific Committee, doi:10.2903/j.efsa.20YY.NNNN,

[ii] Nosek, B.A. et al. Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science: 349  DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4716

Science for Defra: excellence in the application of evidence

Where would Defra be without you?

By any measure Defra is a department which relies on science to keep the wheels turning. This was illustrated very starkly to me a couple of weeks ago at the first Defra Science Conference held in conjunction with the Royal Society. This involved over 300 scientists from within Defra and across the wider community of scientists with interests in food, farming and the environment. There was a moment in the proceedings when I thought, if you took all this away how could Defra remain operation? The answer is that, of course, Defra would grind to a halt quite quickly.

For me, the conference represents the culmination of an effort which began in 2012 when I first asked Defra to produce a new Evidence Strategy which was published in June 2014. This was a ground-breaking document because it talked about the science, evidence and analysis which Defra needed across all of its various constituent bodies. It intentionally combined what Defra was doing in to a single package.

Earlier in the same week as the conference Defra also published its Areas of Research Interest. Even if the conference was a chance to take stock and think about the future, this document represents a considerable step forward for a government department and for Defra in particular. The Areas of Research Interest also represent the next step in the process of ensuring that the research needed by Defra to provide the evidence it needs to support policy is clearly defined. It took a further three years to bring this together mainly because Defra is a complex organisation of over 22,000 staff across more than 30 arm’s length bodies and some 5,000 of these staff identify themselves as scientists or engineers. Collating these views, building ministerial confidence about the robustness of the outcome and discussing them with other departments which were attempting to do similar things took time.

But the outcome is worth the wait. What we have created is a clear set of major questions that Defra is asking. Engaging the wider research community in helping to answer these questions is essential.

As I said in a recent article in Nature, Defra tackles some of the most difficult questions facing people and the planet. It is natural for the wider science community to want to engage with these questions.

The conference was subtitled Excellence in the Application of Evidence because there is no disparity between excellence in science and application and there were many examples of excellence and application sitting comfortably side-by-side through the two-day conference. Although much of the conference skated over detail it covered areas as diverse as emerging technology, environmental quality, climate change, food and farming, animal health and the natural environment.

For me there were four strong messages. The first was that there is a very large community of scientists who are enthusiastic to engage with Defra’s interests and that the publication of the Areas of Research Interest will help them to focus their efforts in ways which align with the needs of a Department of State, which is arguably in the public interest. Sir Mark Walport presented the GSE (Government Science and Engineering) Profession, the largest analytical profession across government, which also emphasised that we are a strong, valued and supported body of professionals in government.

The second message was that, as a community, scientists could help more by being much more integrated in their approach. This was a theme I also visited in the Nature article. At the meeting, Dame Julia Slingo urged the community to think about how it could simulate the dynamics of the systems which Defra has to manage. Her vast experience in simulation comes from her time as a globally leading meteorologist and Chief Scientist at the Met Office and I think she makes a good point.

However, third is a message for Defra itself in that it needs to continue to find ways of creating a porous boundary between itself and the wider science community. Some mechanisms exist to do this, such as studentships on secondment, research fellows spending time in Defra and shared or joint appointments. Indeed, even as Chief Scientific Adviser, I have another job as a university academic so it can be done. I know there are many in the academic community who would relish the opportunity to immerse themselves in the policy environment.

The lasting main message, however, is one of huge enthusiasm. As I approach the end of my tenure as the CSA at Defra, I take heart from the way in which the scientific community continues to step up to lead the policy agenda by putting forward ideas and grappling with deeply seated and difficult problems. Indeed, where would Defra be without this support?

Why a polar medal?

In January 2017 I received notice that I was to receive a Polar Medal form the Queen. This is an honour that few people hear about and even fewer receive. It is given to a rather small cadre of people and each recipient will have their own story about why they might have been chosen. For me, of course, it was a complete surprise and delight to receive the news. I feel humbled to be joining the ranks of many of the people I respect most, from the greats of the age of polar exploration to former colleagues.

I had spent 14 years running a research programme in Antarctica from 1987 to 2001 and during this time I spent 12 summer seasons in Antarctica. Of course, the honour of receiving a Polar Medal is small compared with the honour of having spent a significant proportion of my life in what is certainly the most fascinating and unspoiled region of the planet.

My surprise at receiving the medal was mainly because I never thought I had done enough to deserve it, although my peers obviously think differently. I came relatively late to Antarctic travel and this meant I had never over-wintered in Antarctica which is, in my view, a mark of true personal sacrifice. By the time I spent my first summer there I was already married and had two young children. Communications in those days were still by short-wave radio and I was in a remote location. This meant my ration was 30 words per month to my family. The real Polar Medallists should be the partners and families of those who disappear in to the wilds of the deep south for months on end. I never had the guts to leave the family for more than 5 months at a stretch.

I truly loved my work (and still do). The science I was doing – on the structure and dynamics of the Southern Ocean as seen through the lens of the top predators (seals, whales, penguins and albatrosses) – was gripping and, at times wild. There was a heady mixture of high science and adventure. I was exploring the way in which large, charismatic animals manage their energy budgets in the context of a very big ocean which drives the climate of the planet. This was a lens through which I was finding out how to manage the inexorable exploitation of global resources. But in retrospect one never quite appreciates the moment and only now do I realise that I was doing something special.

My science was supported by the application of technology. Success in those extreme environments always depended at how new technology could be applied to opening new vistas of enquiry. For example, together with some colleagues, I managed to measure the metabolic rate of completely wild penguins as it changes every minute, and did this for a whole year using smart recorders. Over 20 years before they appeared as voguish wrist bands, I was implanting much smaller versions of these smart recorders under the skin of seals, penguins and albatrosses to look in to the private lives of these strange and enigmatic animals. In addition I managed to calibrate the amount of food humans can take from the ocean before it has an effect on those charismatic predators.

Why go to Antarctica to do this? The reasons are many, but fundamentally some things become easier to study in that location in spite of the distance, logistic complexities and isolation. The short food chains of the Southern Ocean mean that energy entering the ecosystem from photosynthesis is transferred very quickly to the predators like seals, whales and seabirds at the top of the ocean food chain. This means there is a super-abundance of these creatures in Antarctica. By studying how these animals are responding to their food supply we probably get a better indication of what is going on within the vast ocean than by using any other method. It was my job to calibrate this response to variations in energy flow through the Southern Ocean ecosystem. This was made so much easier by the fact that these animals were a dream to work with. Unused to people, they were unfazed by me as a researcher. I could achieve things that researchers elsewhere could only dream of.

Of course, apart from the excitement of the science, part of the reward was the opportunities to travel in places never before visited by people, and to spend time in a part of the planet where people are not the dominant force.

To illustrate, in 1987, I visited a hut on the southwest coast of the island of South Georgia. It had been abandoned by a couple of scientists when they were evacuated by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Falkland’s war. I left a note on the table but when I returned 3 years later the note was still there and there was no evidence that anybody had been back in the intervening years, even in this relatively accessible part of Antarctica.

Most of my work was centred on a small island – Bird Island – at the west end of South Georgia. The coastal regions of Antarctica are rich in wildlife but some specific locations attract especially large numbers. Bird Island was one of these places.

The British Antarctic Survey had established a field station there a few years before I first arrived. Many of the great people who worked with me stayed there continuously for periods of 2 ½ years. These were all remarkable individuals none of whom saw it as a sacrifice to give up these years to spend time in such a sublime place.

Bird Island is like nowhere else on earth. An island only about 3 km long and about 1 km across, it was the breeding home for millions of seabirds and about 50,000 Antarctic fur seals, plus a few elephant seals. The huts in which we lived were located within a fur seal colony. This co-habitation had not been intentional but the colony had expanded to surround the buildings after they had been built.

Seals used to drape themselves over our equipment and supplies – often fast asleep – and if the front door was left open the fur seal pups would venture inside the hut. It was far from hygienic but this never seemed to affect us.

There followed studies of penguins, albatrosses, southern elephant seals and, later, ice-breeding seals in the deep ice fields of Marguerite Bay, the Weddell Sea and the Bellingshausen Sea.

I honed my skills of seamanship and flying, operating from yachts and in aircraft across the frozen expanses of the Weddell and Bellingshausen Seas, and jumping in and out of helicopters supplied by the Royal Navy and the US Coastguard. I circumnavigated three-quarters of the continent in the US Coastguard icebreaker Polar Star and I made pizza in the Drake Passage – perhaps the roughest stretch of sea on the planet. I also missed the first Gulf War almost completely. I knew something was happening but news was sparse. I have stayed in deep field camps on the Polar Plateau and flown down an ice canyon created by a massive iceberg hundreds of miles across when it broke away from the Antarctic ice sheet. I worked with big, dangerous animals which had the capacity to cripple or kill me in an unguarded moment. When my wife enquired about life insurance for me the broker just laughed.

If all this represents sufficient qualification for a Polar Medal, then I still feel undeserving – because I had great fun. But most who know me will recognise that it was in pursuit of a serious end point. I was living close to the edge partly for the fun of it, but also partly because it had a serious scientific purpose.

In spite of this, I left my Antarctic work behind because, amazingly, I needed a new challenge. This took me to working with another group of people to study beaked whales in the Bahamas – some of the most cryptic species on the planet – and cope with the politics of working with the US Navy on anti-submarine warfare, but that is another story.

Eventually, the thrill-seeker in me brought me to Defra. This great Department of State, with responsibility for delivering the food we eat and for sustaining environmental quality, is no less interesting than Antarctica with its millions of seals, penguins and other seabirds, and spectacular landscapes. But they are poles apart. My passion for science in Antarctica was largely driven by the idea that it was a place where people had little influence and therefore where large scale natural processes could be studied without this complication. At Defra it is all about people, managing their expectations and building better ways of living so that places like Antarctica – and the people of the planet – might survive.

Dedicated people applying science in the name of vigilance

I might be accused of favouritism but in one case I don’t care. I have written recent blog posts about the exciting work being done by Defra’s scientists at our Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquatic Science (CEFAS). I now want to highlight the great work being done at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

Britain is great at science, there is no doubt. We have one of the strongest university research sectors in the world and are investing in imaginative new institutions such as The Francis Crick and The Alan Turing Institutes. These and other places often produce stories about new discoveries which will eventually lead to some excellent innovation, some of which will incrementally make our lives better and a very small number of which could genuinely change our lives.

This is all good stuff, but we have a tendency to shine the spotlight on a certain kind of science that captures our imaginations about a different and better future rather than science which keeps the show on the road. This is what large numbers of government scientists spend their time doing.

This is exemplified by the scientists working at the Animal and Plant Health Agency. These individuals are largely responsible for keeping our farm animals, pets including dogs and cats, bees and our plants including our horticultural crops, cereals and our garden plants safe from disease and unwanted pests. They are the skilled boffins who can identify these diseases and pests and stop them arriving here in Britain. They also develop new control methods for them and add certainty to decisions made by ministers about what to do in cases of emerging disease.

For example, bovine tuberculosis is one of the most difficult diseases to manage and it is endemic in cattle and some wildlife, mainly badgers. The whole issue about how to deal with this has been hugely controversial mainly because badger culling in some places has emerged as one of the solutions. But culling badgers is a small part of the overall effort to control and understand the disease. Much of the other work, such as trying to find a better test for the presence of TB in cattle or testing new vaccines, goes unreported. The work of APHA’s scientists tends not to hit the headlines because it’s hard to report on work where the results emerge slowly – it will take decades to bring bovine tuberculosis under control. But a small victory for the scientists at APHA will hopefully come next year when the intention is to apply to the European Commission to have northern and eastern England declared officially free of bovine tuberculosis.

Nobody should under-represent the huge effort in terms of the lives and careers of the scientists at APHA in getting to such a milestone. However, they also know that eliminating bovine TB from all of England is almost certainly something that none of them will achieve in their careers, such is the size of the task at hand. But they will happily make their contribution to this long-term effort. I want to shout to the gallery in praise of their heroic efforts even if they themselves remain quiet and modest about their contribution.

Something we are often unaware of is that diseases are always changing. The scientists in APHA recognise well known diseases like rabies, TB and anthrax as fairly well fixed entities but they are also very aware of the unpredictable nature of disease. The pathogen which is causing ash die-back and caused so much controversy in 2013 was a benign fungus which changed to become a pathogenic fungus. Avian influenza, like all influenza viruses, is another of those highly variable diseases which can change from a low pathogenic strain to become highly pathogenic in the blink of an eye. It can also change from being a pathogen in birds to a pathogen in people too.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), also known as prion diseases, gave rise to a version in cattle in the 1990s known to everybody as BSE. Another version of this has emerged in deer in North America. Known as Chronic Wasting Disease, it has recently appeared in a few deer in Scandinavia. As far as we know it has very low transmissibility to people but we need to be cautious. TSEs are a complex and perplexing kind of disease which can emerge spontaneously.

Added to this there are many viral diseases which could mutate to become a problem – ebola and HIV are likely examples which probably transmitted from other species to people.

Spread of non-native invasive species is also a constant concern, such as the unwelcome Asian Hornet which eats honey bees, spotted earlier this year. Scientists at APHA are always on the look out to quickly identify these pests and stop them in their tracks before they spread beyond control.

The scientists at APHA scan this disease and pest landscape on our behalf and are ever vigilant. It is easy to forget them and as a result forget what they do for us to sustain the food we eat, our trading position in the world and our own health. Taking five minutes to check out the work APHA do is well worthwhile.