Selling science

Seán Hogan, Chairperson of Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), discusses the origins of the organisation and the work it carries out with Owen McQuade.

“The department commissions the science and then AFBI delivers it,” explains Seán Hogan. Established three years ago, AFBI employs approximately 800 staff, with responsibility for statutory analytical and diagnostic testing in the agri-food sector, as well as for delivering research which underpins government policy and for providing rapid emergency response to animal and plant disease threats. The organisation was formed out of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Science Service and the Agricultural Research Institute for Northern Ireland when the O’Hare report recommended the separation of the delivery and the commissioning of science.

The role of this relatively young organisation is changing in that it has become much more commercial: “When AFBI was set up, the department more or less guaranteed the amount of research that they would give to us but they made it clear that over a period of time the commercial realities would kick in and that a significant amount of that research would go out to tender. So one of the priorities for AFBI when it was started up was to ensure that whenever that came about the institute was in a position to tender for and to win those contracts on a commercial basis.”

AFBI has also the important role of maintaining an effective emergency response capability and Hogan described how, over the last 18 months, it went into emergency response mode three times. “We had the foot-and-mouth viruses escape from the Pirbright laboratories in late 2007, then there was the bluetongue incidents in early 2008 and of course the most recent one, the dioxin-contaminated feed issue. Hopefully we are now seeing this one drawn to a conclusion,” he says. All three of these had the potential to “have considerable negative impacts on the agri-food industry generally in Northern Ireland and on the island as a whole” as these issues are “no respecter” of either political or geographical boundaries. The institute also has an important role in Northern Ireland’s contingency plan for pandemic avian influenza and constantly monitors for the emergence of bird flu viruses in Northern Ireland.

As a result, Hogan has no doubt that it is vital for AFBI to be constantly prepared to provide an effective local response to such emergencies. The best way to ensure this, in his opinion, “is for AFBI to maintain that critical mass of intelligence, expertise and experience that is our scientists.” He adds: “At the end of the day, if we didn’t have our scientists and supporting administrative staff, we would just be an estate organisation with a lot of buildings and fields. What we essentially are is the culmination of our scientific capability.” AFBI scientists account for approximately 680 of its 800 total staff and come from a range of disciplines, including veterinary science, plant science, agri-food, environment and aquatic science. The organisation also has a sea-going research vessel, which according to Hogan, “does everything from monitoring the fish stocks and the eco systems, to sea bed mapping in the Irish Sea.”

The institute has a commercial imperative to increase its non-DARD funding from 5 per cent to 10 per cent, with the 10 per cent to come from non-DARD sources within its first three years. In response to this target Hogan says: “In the three years we’ve been here, we have actually doubled that. So from the just under £50 million that we spend each year, we are bringing in about 20 per cent from non-DARD sources.”

This rapidly developing commercial profile has led to a change in the culture of AFBI. Hogan comments on how it had to adapt from Civil Service thinking and culture and instead become a public service body with strong links to local industry. He noted that, “although we are a public sector body, we have to increasingly think and act like a private sector organisation because we have to take our goods and services to the market and sell them”. The institute established a commercial unit, AFBI Innovations, last year to help with further exploitation of its intellectual property. This work is being assisted by a competitive grant award, of almost £1 million, from the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The work that AFBI does with local industry and the valuable intellectual property it commercialises are an important source of innovation and economic development for the Northern Ireland economy.

AFBI is recognised widely within the international scientific community for the high quality of its research. It is now recognised by the European Commission as an independent research provider, which means it can attract EU research funding directly into Northern Ireland to creating high value jobs in the science sector. One of the institute’s areas of research expertise which Hogan highlights is renewable energy: “We have a considerable number of people in AFBI who are regarded as world experts in renewable energy.” Late last year, the organisation held an international renewable energy conference with “hugely positive” feedback from the upwards of 200 participants from across Europe and the United States.

An important part of AFBI’s work involves collaborations with individual institutes around the world. It recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and Hogan is hopeful of early successes in this relationship. Closer to home, it works with both universities in Northern Ireland, as well as Teagasc in the Irish Republic. It is also has links with the Indian Government and in the last few months alone has welcomed delegations from Europe, the USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hogan says: “All of these initiatives are about raising the profile of AFBI internationally. People generally will recognise the name DARD but up until three years ago, AFBI didn’t exist. One of the priorities of the board is to continually raise our profile and turn the AFBI name into a highly saleable brand so that people in the international scientific community and commercial world will immediately recognise it and avail of its scientific expertise.” He sees its goal as becoming “an institute that has internationally renowned scientific excellence and a valuable portfolio of saleable science”.

Closer to home, AFBI works in partnership with CAFRE to ensure that local farmers have access to the most up-to-date research findings. Hogan says: “Although in separate organisations, the work of AFBI scientists fits hand-in-glove with that of CAFRE specialists in knowledge and technology transfer to ensure that the results of the institute’s research are transferred to local farmers to improve the economic efficiency of their enterprises.”

Hogan considers that AFBI has encouraged a change in the culture of its scientists and how they now look at their own research in terms of its commercial applications. The organisation is currently looking at ways of improving the protection of its intellectual property and of incentivising the research scientists so that they can be rewarded for their additional considerable efforts in developing products or services with commercial potential.

“If we develop something here and it becomes commercialised, we want those scientists to get a payback from it. If we don’t do that, rich veins of science may not be mined for the benefit of Northern Ireland and we would lose those scientists to other commercial institutes. They would head off to other parts of the UK, Europe or the United States where they would be welcomed with open arms. Keeping their talent here is a priority for us. Without them we have nothing to sell and the Northern Ireland economy would be the loser.” Reinforcing the commercial focus of the organisation, he adds: “There is no point in simply doing research for research’s sake.”

With the success of the organisation based on the knowledge and expertise of its staff, recruitment is crucial to its future. With science being at the core of the organisation, Hogan and his board are keen to encourage young students to take up science subjects “because at the end of the day, AFBI needs a continuing flow of scientists to maintain its future”. Hogan is also a director of Sentinus, a non-profit organisation that promotes the study of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in schools.

All-island co-operation is a strong feature of AFBI’s work. Hogan explains: “We have a very close relationship with Teagasc in the Irish Republic with the aim of ensuring that, where appropriate, research on problems common to the agri-food industry in both parts of the island can be tackled by the combined expertise of scientists in both institutes. Ireland is a small island and the easiest way to understand the relevance of it is to look at the animal diseases that we’ve had over the last few years, foot-andmouth and bluetongue, as well as the recent incident of dioxin contamination in animal feed, all of which have the potential to severely damage the agrifood industry and the huge value of its exports.”

Hogan observes that as an island we still have the ability to keep animal diseases like foot-and-mouth out “if we work closely together because we can restrict the importation of livestock or any of those things that is likely to bring a disease like foot-and-mouth to the shore.” He continues that “it is essential to continue to maintain a local laboratory resource to carry out surveillance and deal with such threats to the economy. That means we must continue to invest in the state-of-the art biocontainment laboratories required for work on such diseases. Recent experience has shown that we cannot rely on external laboratories to provide the analytical testing and specialist advice required. The cost of maintaining a local emergency response capability is modest in comparison with the potentially devastating impact of foot-and-mouth and other animal diseases on our economy.”

In closing, we discuss Hogan’s role as Chairman. He points out that AFBI is different from many other public bodies and agencies in Northern Ireland in that it has an entirely non-executive board with strengths in “the mix of finance people, scientists, and people from the business environment including the agri-food industry. The combination of skills and talents that we have on the board now was instrumental in getting the organisation from nothing to where it is now.” At the end of this year some of the non-executive directors will have completed their terms. Hogan says that in replacing those board members they “will be looking towards increasing the input of commercial experience and will therefore be replacing some of the scientists with senior figures from industry.”

While having emerged from within the public sector, AFBI’s focus on the commercial side of science is clear and should serve it well as the institute responds to the ever-present challenges facing farming, the environment and the economy.

Profile: Seán Hogan

Seán Hogan is Chairman of AFBI. He is Managing Partner of STH Management Solutions Ltd, has an MSc in organisational management from Queen’s University Belfast and qualifications in management studies from the Chartered Management Institute. He is a non-executive director of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company and is also a current member of the Warrenpoint Harbour Authority. Seán is a director of Sentinus, “which helps to develop potential future scientists” and who one day may be future employees of AFBI. A resident of Newry, his interests include rugby as “an armchair sports fan”. He is a self-confessed gadget freak who “would rather lose his car than his Apple Mac laptop.”

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