Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Whispers in the dark - do earthworms talk to plants

Academics spend a lot of their time trying to obtain the money to do the science that they are interested in. One good source of money in the UK are the UK research councils. For most of my research the Natural Environment Research Council is a possible funder.

However, the research councils aren't flush with cash and funding is highly competitive. At present the success rate of NERC research proposals is 14% or, to flip that around 86% of the ideas submitted to the NERC for science projects aren't funded. There's a debate to be had about how productive it is for UK environmental scientists to spend a lot of time writing proposals that don't get funded but the level of competition does keep us on our toes and the quality of UK environmental science really does punch above its weight, quite possibly as a consequence of this intense competition.

Having written how hard it is to get funding, I'm happy to say that last week I heard that myself and a colleague, Professor Jane Thomas Oates in our chemistry department here at York, have just been awarded a grant by the NERC for our project "Whispers in the dark - do earthworms talk to plants". I really love the title! Contrary to what you might imagine in this project we won't be pressing our ears to the ground and listening intently!; rather we'll be using state of the art chemical mass spectrometry (Jane's specialism) to find out whether earthworms produce chemicals that promote plant growth. It's in their interests to do this since plant growth results in more food for the earthworms - more decaying plant material and more soil micro-organisms feeding on the chemicals secreted by the plant roots. The project starts in October and lasts for 18 months in the first instance - keep listening!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

You are the REF

The earth systems and environmental science panel
Every 6 years or so the entire University-based academic community in the UK is assessed to check that we're doing a good job. The assessment is carried out by (in England) the Higher Educaion Funding Council for England (or HEFCE for short), and the equivalent bodies for Wales and Scotland. University's decide on groupings of academics (which often correspond to departments) to be assessed. The assessment is done by a bunch of academics. This process is currently called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), in the past it was called the Research Assessment Exercise.

The Radisson Blu where we are meeting
I sit on the panel of academics tasked with assessing "Earth Systems and Environmental Science". We have to assess "outputs", i.e. research, "impact", i.e. does the research that has been done have an effect on society in some way, and environment, i.e. what the place is like where we do our research. The process comprises reading a lot of documents, grading them and then meeting with other panel members to discuss.

A couple of '60s tower blocks
visible from the hotel
A Chinese pagoda that you can see from the hotel.
It's here due to the closeness of the Chinese district.

We're over half way through the process now and today and tomorrow I'm in exotic Birmingham continuing the work. More than that I'm probably not allowed to say.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Demolition derby

The talk at Daresbury labs. (3 weeks ago now!) went well. A good audience of 100+ with a range of ages. It felt odd being back in Daresbury after I don't know how many years. Given that Diamond celebrated its 10th anniversary this year I probably haven't been to Daresbury for 10 years. The place still looks much the same with the same traffic jams over the rivers on the way there from Warrington station. Sadly there was no time for a nostalgic visit to the Ring O'Bells, a brilliant pub with good guest beers, which made late night shifts on the synchrotron far more bearable.
Audience arriving for my talk at Daresbury labs a few week ago

The following week I was at Nottingham catching up with colleagues and helping out with Soil Biology Professor interviews. Then last week I was at the Natural History Museum in London for a steering group meeting of our NERC BESS project looking at controls on earthworm distributions in grassland sites. The headline news is that "we" (David Jones, NHM) have collected and identified over 13000 earthworms from over 500 soil pits and that we have analysed the soils from the pits as well for all manner of chemical, biological and physical properties. I reckon we have a fantastic and valuable dataset. A very quick look see of the data suggests that Ron Corstanje, our stats maestro from Cranfield will be able to show what impact pasture management techniques have on earthworm populations. I'm resisting the temptation to say what we've found so far but it looks very exciting.

Today I took the opportunity to have a look at the building site that will soon (we trust) turn into a nice new Environment building.

Here is what the site looked like in April this year. Some rather (atypical) slightly worn looking 1960s buildings which I believe provided the cheapest university accommodation at York.

Demolition is now well underway with the aim of a new home for the start of the 2015-6 academic year.

I'll revisit the site later in the year and hopefully we'll all see a new building rising, resplendent from the rubble.