the contribution of european funding

Leaving the EU will have strong and lasting implications for research, mostly negative. The present contributions of EU funding have been well presented elsewhere [1]. For a research group such as ours that has relied in recent years on EU projects for funding and development, leaving will have very serious consequences.

The benefits are not just the money that pays wages and buys lab and field gear, but the contacts, networking and the shared facilities. A group based on the fringes of the atlantic zone can share field sites and data in the Mediterranean, Continental, cold Boreal and Balkan regions; and scientists there can get access to our sites and data in return. The people you work with tend to have similar aims and ideals but work under different constraints, which sometimes make you appreciate your own.

If you gel with your contacts, they will invite you into other projects and vice versa. The bigger organisation may have the structures and attitude to manage multi-partner grants, and while they will get more money for doing the managing, it takes the burden off the smaller player. Working across Europe has been good for us.

Geneflow and seed persistence

Our first major EU project, SIGMEA [2] 2004-2007, examined the movement and persistence of genetic material in the environment. The particular emphasis was coexistence between GM and conventional crops, but the biological and physical principles are the same whatever sort of impurity is under scrutiny.

By the start of SIGMEA, we had already created a european lead in geneflow and persistence by combining whole plant biology, genetic detection, spatial-temporal modelling and statistics to examine scales from gene to landscape. Our role in SIGMEA was to coordinate work across a range of EU sites and to collate and analyse data in a systematic way though common protocols. In total, with >20 partners contributing, the project amassed >100 site-years of data. Nothing like this had been done before. The conclusions reached, by being agreed by all partners, had credibility and held sway in a contentious arena [2].

SIGMEA brings good memories: friendships made that lasted – it opened a way into Europe and eventually more EU funding.

Legume-based cropping systems

By around 2007, our sources of UK national funding had almost dried up (for various reasons) and we were in danger of being without external (i.e. non-Scotland) income. Then in a timely manner, Pete Iannetta helped form the successful Legume Futures consortium which was headed by Bob Rees of SAC (now SRUC).

Legume Futures [3] encouraged us to look at ways to design production systems that would optimise a range of functions, such as soil fertility, food web support, mineral N replacement as well as yield. We continue now improving the principles of design that began here.

Legume Futures [3] also brought together for analysis a range of field experiments from which colleagues were able to estimate the contribution of biological fixation to the nitrogen economy of cropping (see Why so few estimates of nitrogen fixation?).

Integrated Pest Management – PURE and ENDURE

Contacts from SIGMEA and other collaborations led to our involvement in EU PURE on integrated pest management [4]. PURE was the largest EU grant awarded for an agricultural project. I remember sitting in a room in Paris where the putative bid partners divvied up the responsibilities in advance of the bid going in. It was tricky negotiation.

Months later, the proposal, headed by INRA France, was favoured and the grant was secured. Agroecology@hutton had a major role (and Workpackage) in landscape scale processes, as well as other contributions. Graham Begg fronted the landscape scale developments and Nick Birch organised the Hutton input as a whole.

PURE allowed development of a new area of expertise in the group:  quantifying how individual fields contribute to defining a landscape and are in turn influenced by the landscape around them. We also worked with  INRA to improve the ‘biodiversity’ section of a decision aid named DEXiPM.

The ENDURE Network [5] existed before PURE and was was strengthened by it. The ENDURE Network was in a way self-funded in that it brought together a range of partners with interest in reducing pesticide by means of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). ENDURE continues today. Its web site and newsletters [5] offer a range of information and advice, both scientific and practical.

Environmental risk assessment

The SIGMEA and PURE projects in turn led to EU AMIGA [6], another major project that aimed to test existing guidelines on GM environmental risk assessment (ERA) and develop new tools and methodologies to aid ERA. The consortium was a late starter in the race and not the favourite. Moreover, the bid coordinators, Salvatore Arpaia from Italy and Antoine Messean from France had problems with brief cases and things being locked in buildings hours before the bid. They kept the rest of us guessing. The bid went in just 3 minutes before the 5 pm deadline. (What relief, I assure you!) After that …  we could only win (and we did).

For the first time, the Hutton was unable to host field experiments. So our contribution was mainly databasing, analysis and modelling and coordinating experiments at a distance. Examination of long term environmental effects (my responsibility) led to a system-led approach that was probably applicable to any change, not just GM cropping. Nick Birch coordinated assessments of integrated pest management across a series of experiments on maize, resistant to corn borer.

AMIGA was a successful project, well coordinated, great team work, and entertaining meetings, especially that one near an ancient church in a hill-top village in southern Italy!

The use of native seed in regeneration of vegetation

This final of the projects to date, named NASSTEC [7] is different from the others in that its main purpose is to fund doctoral students based in different parts of Europe. There is one student at the Hutton and another nearby at Scotia Seeds, but several colleagues have been involved in teaching and mentoring all the students.  This is another of Pete Iannetta’s projects.

The link between the students is that all are working on some aspect of native seeds and their possible use in regeneration of vegetation. The topic is highly relevant to two strands of Agroecology’s interests – seeds (and plant phenotypes) and legumes, the latter needed to supply the nitrogen in degraded ecosystems. The project finishes in 2017.

 The future

The group has certainly seen the benefit of EU funding. We now have more active involvement in Europe than we have with UK institutes and universities. We have >100 active contacts across >10 countries, some of whom are still working on SIGMEA data from 2004-2008.

Colleagues are still heavily involved in current EU H2020 bids. Should they be successful – and so far the signs are they are – then funding for the course of the projects (usually 3-4 years) would be guaranteed, we are told, but at this stage it is hard to see how our european collaborations in sustainable agriculture and environment can continue in the longer term.

Most partners have been sympathetic to the uncertainties caused by leaving the EU. Yet it did not take long after the referendum for the less sympathetic to start demanding that Hutton scientists (i.e. from Britain) should not lead or be part of bids. Shabby!

There may be still good times and good research ahead with European colleagues.

Here is a group photograph of the EU SIGMEA team that visited Dundee in 2004
Sources / references

[1] Royal Society of Edinburgh (Advice Paper March 2016): Inquiry into the impact of EU regulation and policy on the Uk life sciences. Royal Society: The role of the EU in funding UK research.

[2] SIGMEA 2004-2007. Contact:

[3] Legume Futures at the European Legume Research Centre. Contact:,

[4] PURE integrated pest management: 2013-2016. Contact:,

[5] ENDURE Network – Diversifying crop protection (unfunded network, continuing):

[6] AMIGA Assessing the monitoring the impact of GM plants on agro-ecosystems: 2012-2016. Contact:,

[7] NASSTEC Native Seed Science, Technology and Conservation Initial Traning Network: 2013-2017. Contact:

[updated with SIGMEA group photograph and edits on 25 April 2017]