Thursday, November 30, 2023

Soil scientist sees opportunities

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New Royal Society Te Aparangi president-elect Brent Clothier is the first person with an agricultural science background appointed to the role since the 1980s. He spoke to Colin Williscroft.
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With more than 40 years’ experience and 300 published papers to his name Dr Brent Clothier has seen a lot of change in New Zealand science and research circles – not all of it good.

Today there might be shortages of skilled scientists in many disciplines including soil and water science, his own area of expertise, but Clothier says the opportunities are increasing, it’s just a matter of attracting people to areas that offer exciting and stable futures.

Part of that is down to the growing awareness of primary industries’ importance to NZ, backed up by Government policies designed to protect the country’s soil and water resources.

The challenge now is to get people studying subjects that will enable them to build on work already done, with a view to optimising future opportunities and to do that there needs to be a greater awareness of the variety of options available for long and rewarding careers.

There are huge opportunities for universities to get young people interested in studying subjects related to land use and land use change, including soil science and plant biology.

“But they need to explain where those opportunities are and then sell how they can help them get there.”

Clothier, principal scientist at Plant and Food Research, says land use sciences like soil science might offer plenty of attractive job paths today but less than 20 years ago it was anything but, though lessons learned from the darkest times have, in the end, given strength to Crown research institutes like Plant and Food, AgResearch and Landcare.

In 2003 the government of the day halved funding for soil and land-related sciences.

That year, in setting its budget for the next six years, the major buyer of public good science at the time, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, shifted funding to what were seen as the more glamorous sectors of information and computer technology, innovative industries and biotechnology.

Funding for what was viewed as sunset or old economy research like agriculture was cut, with support for soil science falling from $6 million to $3m with $7m lost across the six CRIs doing soil and land use science.

In response, Clothier was asked to produce a confidential report to find out what had gone wrong and find solutions to ensure the future of research that was increasingly under threat.

The report suggested rather than competing against each other CRIs should work together to maintain and manage soil and land-use research.

It was a change in mindset but one that over time has given the institutes strength.

Just like farmers in the 1980s had to learn how to exist without subsidies the institutes have weaned themselves off complete reliance on central government funding, now also working for a variety of other organisations, including commercial entities wanting to tap into their expertise.

That’s fostered a degree of confidence and pride in their work and how they do it. Times have changed so much since then that their work is now acknowledged as critical to the country’s future.

“We’ve gone from the outhouse to the penthouse,” he says.

In his role of Royal Society president Clothier will take over from Professor Wendy Larner in July next year at the end of her three-year term. He has already joined the society’s council as president-elect.

In announcing his appointment the society said it was thrilled he had chosen to do so, pointing to his work advancing the understanding of natural assets that deliver ecosystem services to grow crops and enable informed land-use decisions.

That’s involved in finding a better understanding of how water and chemicals move through soil, along with inventing new devices to monitor that. 

He has worked with colleagues to develop a way to directly measure water use by trees and vines that has helped improve water management in water-short regions globally.

All that work has been appreciated and recognised internationally.

Late last year he was the first New Zealander to be elected as an Academician in the Division of Agriculture of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and holds adjunct professorships in NZ, Australia and Spain.

A Fellow of Royal Society Te Aparangi since 1994, Clothier is an elected member of three major bodies in the United States (the Soil Science Society of America, the American Agronomy Society and the American Geophysical Union) and last year was recognised for his lifetime achievement at the Science NZ national awards at Parliament for his contribution to advancing NZ’s environmental well-being.

When he takes over as president it will be 40 years since Dr Ted Bollard started as the society’s president. Bollard, director of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s plant diseases division, the predecessor of Plant and Food Research, was the last person with an agricultural science background to hold the president’s role.

Based in Palmerston North, Clothier, the first CRI scientist appointed Royal Society president, says the organisation has made big strides in making itself increasingly relevant to the communities it serves, having broadened its focus to include arts and social sciences.

That has allowed it to better connect with the communities that on a practical level use the science it produces, in farming terms the decision-makers who work on the land rather than just fellow scientists.

It’s an independent provider of advice to the community and government while facilitating discussion on subjects like genetic modification, ocean acidification and climate change.

It runs the Science Media Centre, which provides expert comments to journalists writing stories on the latest scientific developments, helping create a more informed community.

He’s looking forward to the new role though it will be challenging.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill and that is very motivating for me,” he said.

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