Celebrating plants of the future with Norfolk

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At the start of summer, Norwich Research Park welcomed over 600 members of the public for an Open Day themed around “Plants of the Future”. On Saturday 21st May 2022, visitors could get involved with hands-on stalls and exhibits, a plant disease trail around the Park, biodiversity tours, and an exhibition of scientific photographs on the theme of Plant Health.

Every year, the love of plants is celebrated world-wide as organizations, public gardens, schools and research institutes participate in the ‘Fascination of Plants Day’ on 18 May.

Anyone who works with plants can agree that:

  1. Plants are awesome
  2. More people need to know just how awesome they are

Somehow plants have become the backgrounds to our lives. However, an increased awareness and appreciation of plants unveils the rich and vibrant environment we all live in.

Plants are the gift that keeps on giving

Not only for our livelihoods; where they provide us with oxygen, medicine, energy, clothes AND a comfy climate - but also as a research topic.

At The Sainsbury Laboratory we have been studying plant pathogens and the plant immune system for more than three decades, with ground-breaking discoveries along the way. Plants continue to surprise even our most experienced researchers. You need to be quick on your feet if you want to unlock the secrets of plants.

You’re also going to need some impressive technologies and a team of experts, which is where our fantastic support teams step in. Our technicians play a key role in the excellent research produced by The Sainsbury Laboratory, and we were delighted that so many of them enthusiastically volunteered to share more about their work with the public.

Tapping into the collaborative spirit of Norwich Research Park

The Sainsbury Laboratory isn't the only institute at Norwich Research Park that studies plants - it is a shared passion amongst us, the John Innes Centre, Quadram Institute and Earlham Institute.

After such a long period of virtual meetings, there was a strong appetite to reconnect with each other and members of the public. An open day exploring plant science at Norwich Research Park sounded like the perfect opportunity to engage and have fun.

We had 80 enthusiastic volunteers from across our institutes sharing their research through displays and activities on Saturday, 21 May 2022, with 630 engaged visitors from all corners of Norfolk participating at our ‘Plants of the Future’ open day at the Park.

Nicola Atkinson from Professor Wenbo Ma's group engaging with enthusiastic visitors. Photo credit: Stephen Bornemann

Science communication goes both ways

Effective communication of your science is a conversation with new insights gained on both sides. Open days provide valuable opportunities for these one-to-one conversations, and it clearly went well since the feedback from our visitors and volunteers was overwhelmingly positive.

In a survey sent to our visitors, over 95% of respondents said that they learned something new. Plant health affects all of us, and it was great to see 98% of respondents agreeing that the science done on the Norwich Research Park affects their lives.

Our visitors found the day to be entertaining and accessible for people of all ages, and many appreciated the educational experience it provided for their children. They were surprised at how enthusiastic and dedicated our scientists were in explaining their research, and how they tried their best to answer all kinds of questions.

Comments from our survey about the event:

“Thoroughly enjoyable. Interesting and surprisingly entertaining. It was great chatting to experts that could communicate complex idea simply and with enthusiasm. Very inspiring!”

“Outreach to the community at large is very important, especially at a time when science can make such a vital difference to our uncertain future - and when science/scientists are frequently misunderstood.”

Our volunteers found the discussions to be equally enlightening. They were pleasantly surprised at how excited and positive visitors were about their research, and enjoyed the challenge of trying to answer questions they've never been asked before (or even considered!).

Due to the lingering negative public perception of GM, some of our scientists have felt reluctant to engage with the public on this topic, fearing difficult conversations with those who oppose the technology. However, the more we publicly engage on the topic of genetic technologies the more we realise that people are generally positive and/or receptive to the idea in the context of the potential environmental and health benefits these methods could bring.

When asked what their favourite part of the day was, some respondents commented:

“Seeing the improvement GMO would make to reducing spraying of fungicide etc.”

“Potato scab reduction in Maris Piper by gene editing. Hearing government is relaxing rules on the growing of GE crops.”

There's a historical association of GM with multinational corporations that are set on exploiting farmers and our natural environment. In our experience, once that outdated association is taken out of the picture, people are generally receptive to the technology itself.

There were a few people who still felt opposed to the technology, even after hearing about the science behind it, and we appreciated these conversations and the opportunity to hear each other’s thoughts in a respectful manner.

We also received constructive feedback to help us host even better open days in the future. The almost exclusively digital promotion of the event excluded certain demographics, so we aim to use more printed media next time. As this was a family-friendly event, the areas around the stands became very busy and loud at times which made it difficult for others to engage with the scientists. We plan to have a quiet slot and more quiet spaces for our next open day.

We really appreciate the engagement and support for this event from our community in Norfolk. Our scientists are now even more enthusiastic about discussing the latest research and being inspired by you all.

A successful event built on generosity

We are very grateful for the collaborative spirit on the Park for making this event possible. With no hesitation, the Earlham Institute, John Innes Centre, Quadram Institute and the Anglia Innovation Partnership jumped into the project to pool resources and expertise. In particular, the John Innes Centre made huge contributions by providing the Conference Centre, tours, volunteers and all the expertise and resources of their Communications team.

Our research assistant Hsuan Pai created a piece of art to reflect our plant heath research and vision for the future. She blew us away with her design! The design was printed on our volunteer T-shirts.

In this video we highlight out some of the important topics that Pai incorporated into her work.

It was also Plant Health Week in May (from the 9th to the 15th) and the British Society of Plant Pathology were incredibly supportive of our goal to engage with the public on the topic of plant health and provided a generous grant. This grant allowed us to create an exhibition of scientific photographs titled “Plant Health: Through Our Eyes”.

The exhibition aimed to draw links between science and art and to engage members of the public with plant health research through a series of beautiful and visually striking images. The photographs were sourced from scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory and covered the breadth of research carried out at the Laboratory, from in vitro assays to field trials. We are fortunate to have an excellent scientific photographer, Phil Robinson, John Innes Centre, as well as Stephen Bornemann who captured several of the images in the exhibition.

We asked visitors what they felt about the photos and you can find their descriptions in the video below.

Basti Samwald representing the BSPP at the Plants of the Future Open Day. Photo credit: Stephen Bornemann.

Thanks to the generous support of the BSPP, there was a strong focus on plant health research with nine interactive stalls themed around plant-microbe interactions. These were designed and delivered by scientists from The Sainsbury Laboratory, who came up with some novel and creative ways to share the research we do.

The dedicated and enthusiastic organising committee who pulled this event off in less than two months. From the left: Freya Carter (formerly Anglia Innovation Partnership), Felicity Perry (John Innes Institute), Mia Cerfonteyn (The Sainsbury Laboratory), Shona Strachan (2Blades, TSL), Amelia Lovelace (TSL) and Josephine Maidment (2Blades, TSL). Photo credit: Stephen Bornemann