August 5, 2014
by Guy Poppy
Guy Poppy was born in the East Midlands of the UK into a non-scientific family. He was the first member of his family to attend university, and he studied Biology at Imperial College (BSc 1987). His DPhil at Oxford (1990) introduced him to interdisciplinary research, an approach which has really influenced his subsequent career. He started his first lab at Rothamsted Research where he worked alongside inspiring colleagues such as John Pickett. Missing university life, he left Rothamsted for the University of Southampton in 2001. His research interests have spanned chemical ecology, multitrophic interactions, genetic manipulation (GM) risk assessment, and most recently Global Food Security and how to achieve Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture. Guy has served as Head of Biological Sciences at Southampton and Director of the University’s Interdisciplinary Research Strategy which has resulted in cross-university groups and institutes tackling some of the world’s grand challenges. He is currently on a part-time secondment as the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Food Standards Agency (a non-ministerial UK Government Department). His current research interests include leading an international interdisciplinary consortium using an ecosystems services framework for food and nutritional security in Malawi, Colombia, and Peru.
What influenced your path into plant biology?
In fact I went to university to study Zoology, but switched to Biology to take some plant courses. My DPhil at the Zoology Department of Oxford University was on insect pheromones. It was only during my first postdoc at Rothamsted with John Pickett that plant chemistry came to the fore, and the fascinating diversity and importance of plant secondary metabolites grabbed my attention. This led me to working on the environmental risks of GM plants, given my interdisciplinary training, and then a gradual shift towards food security – which is clearly a very plant-focussed research area and now dominates my research. Thus, despite being a late convert, I am now a strong advocate that plant biology should be part of every biologists’ education.
What would you be if you were not a plant biologist?
As a child I was fanatical about two things – natural history and sport. Thus, I dreamt of being the next David Attenborough travelling the world seeing fascinating things or of being a famous sportsmen competing on the international stage. However, my footballing and athletic career (I represented the County of Sussex and was offered a football trial with Crystal palace) took a back-seat and I became a scientist. Interestingly, this has allowed me to travel the world and compete on the international stage, although perhaps not being a household name. My recent research in the Amazon and Africa even allows me to develop ways to conserve biodiversity and improve human well-being – so I am satisfied with how it turned out.
Are there any issues in scientific funding you feel strongly about?
During my career I have combined a mechanistic approach with a more adaptive/ultimate approach to understanding biological systems. I believe this has worked well, as has the interdisciplinary approach which has involved me collaborating with social scientists, physical scientists, and health scientists. Such broader thinking and interdisciplinary approaches are heralded as the only way to really advance our knowledge, although it can be a challenge to raise funding for such research. There are specific calls for interdisciplinary programmes, but many funders struggle to assess these projects. Scoring the parts is commonplace, where each discipline needs to be world-leading – but surely it is the sum of the parts that matters, and using maths which is not cutting-edge to advance biological understanding of a system will not detract from world-class interdisciplinary research being undertaken. Addressing food security requires systems thinking and an interdisciplinary approach. There is no point developing a new crop plant without targeting the needs of an African farmer or considering how it could change the dynamics of the community in an undesirable way – the new crop plant could really improve the livelihoods of people, and social science embedded in the programme can help to make this happen. Food security requires interdisciplinary teams addressing the system, and the funders need to play their part to achieve this goal.
In hindsight, what in your research career has given you the most pleasure?
It can be hard to think of specific research outputs that have given me most pleasure because all research brings pleasure to me and my group. I am proud of being ahead of the curve in interdisciplinary thinking and in my research of tracking bee foraging using radar, adopting a systems approach to GM plant risk-assessment and, most recently, using the ecosystem services framework to deliver food and nutritional security – these have all been well received by my scientific peers and, importantly, are having a wide impact outside academia. As someone from a non-academic family, this is important to me. I have had the pleasure of training almost 30 PhD students, and also many postdocs and undergraduates experiencing research for the first time. I think this brings the most pleasure of all because these are the next generation of scientists. These people will contribute to areas similar to my own as well as contributing to completely unrelated issues. I feel that I have in some small way helped to shape their careers and outputs to society; I receive great pleasure from that and feel privileged to be working in a university.
What big questions interest you in the long term?
I have recently undertaken a part-time secondment from my university to be the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) for the Food Standards Agency in the UK. The role of a CSA in UK Government is to offer independent scientific advice of the highest quality and to ensure that evidence is at the heart of decision-making relating to that department. In the case of food safety and food standards, science is essential for ensuring that we have access to a sustainable supply of authentic, safe, and nutritious food. The food system is increasingly complex, and food security is a wicked problem and part of the ‘perfect storm’ described by Sir John Beddington when he was the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I am interested in addressing food security, which means that all the pillars required (access, availability, utilisation, and stability/resilience) are considered and addressed. Too often, scientists focus only on one small part of the system, resulting in little progress and time wasted arguing about relative importance. I see the challenge as taking the systems approach, making sure one knows which levers to pull and how best to ensure food security across the world today and tomorrow.
What are the future challenges in plant science?
I was fortunate to be an author on a paper which tried to identify the top 100 questions in plant science. Thus, I have a head-start on this one and recommend that you read this paper . As someone who has tended towards more applied research, my challenges will focus on what I see as the greatest challenge of all – sustainably feeding the world. Thus, we need to really push for sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture and ensure that it is more than a concept or philosophy. Much of our fundamental science needs to underpin how to achieve SI, and thus it is possible to undertake cutting-edge fundamental research which can have a wider impact in a reasonable timeframe. Funding plant science remains a challenge across the world because we need to recruit the best minds and best labs to address the food security nexus – food, water, and energy for an increasing population, changing demographics, and resilience to climate change. Finally, we need to attract young people into plant sciences – convincing young scientists that addressing hunger is as big a challenge and personal reward as addressing dementia or cancer.