Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Advertisements

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, http://www.efsa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/consultation/150618.pdf

[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.

 

 

The importance of government science

‘Government science’ is important but greatly undervalued. For about four decades, the UK has built up a world-leading university sector – but perhaps at the cost of taking its eye off the value brought by science done within the public sector and, in particular, within the Civil Service itself.

The value of this science was illustrated to me on a recent visit to a Defra laboratory – the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquatic Science (Cefas) in Weymouth.

Cefas  is a world leading organisation in marine and freshwater science and technology; providing solutions to local and global issues in marine environment protection and food safety. The laboratory in Weymouth has specialist aquarium facilities that are unique within Europe and of global importance. Fish and shellfish can be held in biosecure conditions so that some of our most challenging fish diseases can be studied. Not only does the work in the lab service the needs of the UK government and others across Europe, it also supports the testing of new diagnostics and vaccines by commercial companies. It is doubtful whether the UK could have a credible aquaculture industry without Cefas, its laboratory and, most important of all, its excellent scientists.

Here are a few examples:

Richard Paley is studying the potential viruses carried by the Garra rufa fish; the fish which became famous in the ‘fish pedicure’ craze across the country. Import of these species into Britain dramatically increased between 2010 and 2014 to keep up with demand. Whilst the British public were enjoying, or being horrified by this new treatment, Richard and his team were working to ensure these fish were not bringing in any harmful diseases which could be a threat to both humans and local aquaculture.

Tim Bean has been leading the fight against the oyster herpesvirus, which appeared in Britain in 2010 and has been affect European oyster populations. There is no cure and it can wipe out up to 90% of juvenile oysters. Resistant individuals are selected based on genetic markers and these now provide the brood stock for the future oysters that appear on our plates. But this is likely to be a never-ending story; as viruses are likely to evolve to counter this selection, Tim always needs to work to stay one step ahead of the viruses to ensure a thriving British oyster stock into the future.

Shellfish such as oysters feed by filtering seawater, which is actually a thin soup of plankton, bacteria, viruses and other organics. One of the services they perform is to clean the water but this feeding technique can also results in uptake of sewage, chemicals and naturally occurring toxins which may be harmful to human health. Government standards set the levels of toxins deemed safe for human consumption, and Cefas undertakes monitoring to ensure the shellfish that reach our plates is safe, as well as continually updating and improving its methods. Alex Turner and colleagues devised a new method to improve the detection of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), caused by the accumulation of neurotoxin, saxitoxin.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0041010115001014

Cefas has also been at the forefront of detecting the presence of new and emerging threats in UK shellfish. Between 2013 and 2014, presence of the extremely dangerous pufferfish toxin, Tetrodotoxin, was detected in low levels in South coast UK shellfish populations. These toxins were previously thought not to occur in temperate waters, however increasing sea surfaces temperatures are opening a gateway for new toxins to thrive in waters previously deemed too cold. Cefas is leading the way in monitoring these new unwelcome guests before they become a problem.

http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=21009

Not only have new detection technologies benefited the UK – Cefas has led projects with shrimp farmers in South East Asia to detect White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV), which is extremely infectious and able to wipe out entire populations of shrimps in a matter of days. They are also using DNA in aquaculture ponds to monitor genomic changes over time, to determine when an outbreak is about to occur. This allows early warning signals that the stock may be at risk. This technique enables the discovery of viruses and pathogens previously invisible to standard PCR techniques.

https://www.cefas.co.uk/case-studies/diseases-in-shrimp-aquaculture/

Work on prediction methods to pre-empt harmful Virbrio sp. outbreaks across Europe (cholera is a vibrio) is also being led by Craig Baker-Austin. We now know that Vibrio sp. thrive at specific salinities and temperatures narrowing down the areas of risk. We need to keep an eye on these dangerous pathogens.

http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate1628.html

These examples illustrate the vital work being done by government scientists. They are a modest bunch of people who rarely talk openly about the great work they do. But the next time I eat seafood from British waters, or from abroad, I will be grateful for the work and dedication of the people at Cefas in Weymouth. Because, thanks to them, I will know it is safe to eat.

The opportunities and challenges of open data

 


When people think about ‘data’, especially in its modern context, agriculture may not be the first thing that crosses their minds. Yet agricultural data are some of the oldest: megalithic stone circles mark the yearly shift of the sun – and thus, the seasons; the earliest cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia record grain yields and livestock sales; the Domesday book lists farmsteads and agricultural workers; while farmer’s almanacs, going back to the middle ages, record meteorological conditions and their effect on crops. Modern statistical science, which developed from a need to understand data, also owes a debt to agriculture – from Mendel’s rules of heredity being essentially statistical, to the great Ronald Fisher, who revolutionised statistics in the 20th century while working for Rothamsted Research, trying to help them understand the wealth of agricultural data they were generating.

Just as the knowledge-sharing in agricultural almanacs was beneficial to farmers in the middle ages, open data has much to offer farmers and communities around the world in the 21st century. I was recently one of 700 delegates from around the world at the Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) meeting, sponsored by the UN in New York. There was a lot of optimism about the potential of open data to be an important part of the solution to global problems of food poverty and poor nutrition, especially as the population increases and food production becomes more costly, due to climate change and uncertainties about energy and fertiliser production. Open data has a capacity to make a real difference in developing economies, which often leap-frog more developed economies, with some of the first telecommunication infrastructure to appear in developing countries being the mobile smartphone. Codifying data in the right formats can turn people who might not have access to some other basic infrastructures in to genuine participants in economic activity.

In developed countries, the methods of engagement may differ but the effects should be the same. This is fundamentally about allowing information to flow easily between those who have knowledge to those who need that knowledge with minimum friction, freeing up capacity to innovate. For example, the activities of CABI, an organisation which hold statistics about plant pests and diseases, can assist farmers to understand what plant diseases they are coping with and how to adapt their farming methods to reduce the impact of disease. Other forms of communication can help farmers to find markets for their produce, get paid and also find sources of the best seeds suited to their soil conditions. All of this is powered by open data.

Data is agnostic to whether the applications are in developing or developed economies. In developed economies with a technological advantage, data can support precision agriculture to get the best quality produce for market, while in developing economies it can help those who farm at small scales to understand how their yields can be improved. In the UK, for instance, 3D landscape models, originally generated by the Environment Agency to plan defences for and mitigate flood, has been made open and is being used by English sparkling wine producers to identify slopes with the best aspect and elevation for planting new vines. In emerging economies, simply sharing data on soil type, crop variety and yield can make a huge difference. Better access to data is a great leveller, a tool by which inequalities can be addressed.

The Open Data Institute suggests that open data is infrastructure for the digital economy. In an environmental context, ensuring that individuals have access to information empowers them to make decisions informed by evidence. In an agricultural context, open data has the potential to share information to allow the development of a culture of continuous improvement.

The commitment to open data at GODAN is impressive, representing a global effort. The enthusiasm there was infectious, the examples of successes were compelling, and the genuine commitment of the delegates to make a difference in the challenges facing the planet was inspirational.

The UK has been a leading light in establishing GODAN, together with the USA and Kenya. Other countries, such as Germany, are now coming on board. In the UK we are trying to lead by example by making our own government data open by default, unless there is a compelling reason not to, for example if it contains personal information. After a sustained effort, over 40% of all UK government data now comes from Defra – over 12,000 datasets, a figure still rising – and much of this is about food and farming, or is at least relevant to the environmental outcomes affected by our agriculture. Anybody can access, use and share these data, which has seen the data being used in new and unanticipated ways, as innovators use data intended for one purpose in ways that solve problems for other areas – including the LiDAR data being used by wine producers.

As I emphasised in the two presentations I gave at the GODAN conference, open data is not enough on its own. There are two additional and essential steps which have to happen. The first is making sure there are tools to allow people to ‘see’ data much more easily. People need to be led through the crowded landscape of the inner workings of websites in ways that allow them to interrogate the data to answer questions relevant to them. This needs some smart thinking, including employing machine learning, where computers themselves learn from the questions people are asking and construct the algorithms needed to access the right data.

The second step is to develop use-case studies. These are illustrations of the ways in which using data has helped farmers and those working in agriculture. These are necessary because often those people involved don’t know what questions to ask of the data. If they never ask the questions then the knowledge residing in the data will never be mined and put to use. This is a much bigger problem than many people realise. Unless practitioners are primed to ask questions of data they will never know what they are missing.

Despite all the euphoria around the power of data, I was surprised by how little caution there was in the rhetoric emerging from the conference. For some, it was a case of open data at any cost. Implicit in their argument is that any restrictions or limits on use – whatever they might be – will greatly reduce the benefits of the data. In my talks I challenged this. Too many great technologies, especially many of those associated with synthetic biology, which should be revolutionising farming and food production across the globe, are sitting on the shelf unused. This is largely because the early gung-ho messaging when these technologies appeared sensitised people to potential (but largely spurious) disadvantages. Although we are more used to knowledge and information flowing to and from us that we perhaps are to having synthetic biology embedded in our lives, there are dangers from giving out the wrong messages.

Everybody leaves behind their digital smoke and our own signatures sit within the clouds of data, which power digital economies. For those who wish to, there are ways of using this to find out more about us than perhaps some people might wish. I am a great supporter of open data, but we need to make sure that people know where data about them are, how it is being used and by whom. At Defra, data practitioners go to great lengths to remove any personal data from agricultural datasets, but this remains a challenge for some datasets, such as data on movement of animals. There is risk involved just as in any activity, and it is important that those risks be acknowledged and managed. It is important to be open about open data.