President’s Letter: Where Do We Go from Here?

Sally MackenzieA research community thrives best when it acts with a consensus voice and agrees to commonly held priorities. An effort to achieve such consensus within the plant science community was first launched with the 2013 publication of the document Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science: A Vision for 2015–2025 (http://bit.ly/DecadalVision). The Decadal Vision identified emerging societal challenges and opportunities in plant science over the next 10 years, as well as areas of common concern as research goes forward. Over the past two years, the broad objectives outlined in the Decadal Vision have advanced to identifying meaningful strategies that address the issues and priorities raised in that document.

This work has been carried out under the auspices of the Plant Science Research Network (PSRN), an NSF-funded Research Coordination Network that comprises 14 plant science societies, research institutes, and other organizations. Under the unflagging leadership of David Stern, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute, who is principal investigator of the grant, the PSRN team has convened a number of workshops to stimulate innovation and integrate ideas from the broad swath of plant science represented by the PSRN to model the future of training in the plant sciences, the cyberinfrastructure that will be needed to grow capabilities in computation and big data, and the research areas likely to transform the plant science landscape over the next 20 years.

If you would like a taste of the work that underpins some of these discussions, I point you to the document Imagining Science in 2035 (http://bit.ly/ImaginingScience), the outcome of a long-term visioning exercise carried out by the PSRN during a workshop held at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This workshop adopted a scenario-planning approach that imagined possible future constructs for plant science research, and the Imagining Science document that emerged from this effort is intended to provide “a broad-based, plant science–oriented resource for planning research, education and training activities” (https://tinyurl.com/yb4ll5xh) Indeed, the PSRN has already used these future scenarios as starting points for subsequent workshops focused on plant science training and cyberinfrastructure needs over the coming two decades.

One profound outcome of the PSRN’s discussions to date is the growing recognition that future research, infrastructure, and training objectives must be highly integrative to be truly effective. This concept is a clear departure from the independent manner in which research initiatives and infrastructure and training efforts are implemented presently. As current demand for expertise in plant science broadens job opportunities far beyond the traditional realm of academic and industry research employment, and as we strive to expand diversity within the plant science research community, training models implemented into the future must be more versatile, accessible, and broad in experiential opportunities. High-end infrastructure necessary to accommodate research of the future will be centralized to better facilitate regional collaboration and intersector partnerships with less duplication.

The concepts developed through this deliberative process have been brought together in the National Plant Science Initiative (NPSI; http://bit.ly/NPSI-Plantae), an exciting and comprehensive plan to enhance future plant research in four primary directions: exploring and preserving biodiversity, exploring plant biochemical diversity, enabling deep phenomics, and discovering the plant microbiome. The proposed effort is seeking to increase investment in plant science research and training by a half-billion dollars, forging a compelling argument for the broad societal and research benefits deriving from the ability to treat nearly all plant species as models, making significant strides in synthetic biology and precision breeding, and harvesting the vast benefits of enhanced computation. The ideas presented are aimed at stimulating economic growth, enhancing public—private partnerships, and growing the U.S. agricultural economy.

Future plant science training will aim to enhance accessibility for a wider segment of STEM students who are likely to follow a much more diverse range of career-training pathways. Future training models must empower trainees, enable more modular and customized experiences, allow a more diverse set of options for gaining necessary competencies, and permit individuals to enter, exit, and reenter their training path as needed over the course of a career. These are new concepts, denoting a significant culture shift, and they will likely require pilot efforts by an initiating group of institutions to lead the way in refining their implementation.

I urge you to read the NPSI and accompanying documents and to share them with your colleagues, students, and administrators. These are exciting times of change, and it will require the entire community speaking with one voice to make this plan a reality.

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