Statistics investment to underpin grains research advances
Author: Sharon Watt | Date: 16 Jan 2018
The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) has announced a major new investment aimed at strengthening and enhancing national and regional grains research outcomes.
The GRDC has launched phase three of its Statistics for the Australian Grains Industry (SAGI) program which will involve the creation of four nodes across Australia to deliver an unprecedented level of high quality statistical science to underpin the scientific rigour of hundreds of research projects.
GRDC Managing Director Dr Steve Jefferies says the SAGI-3 investment of $18 million over the next five years will be essential in supporting rapid advances in crop varieties, agronomic knowledge and farming practices – ultimately contributing to enduring profitability for Australian grain growers.
“This significant investment will increase the national grains industry’s capacity in the area of biometrics – the application of statistics to biological data – which is incredibly important in ensuring that grains research is statistically sound and credible, as well as speeding up research outcomes for the benefit of growers,” Dr Jefferies said.
“Statistical science is an unsung hero of improvements in the grains industry. Through the GRDC’s statistical investments over the past 15 years, statistical science has played a critical role in the breeding of better grain varieties and more efficient research development and extension (RD&E) targeting grower priorities.
“Importantly, the GRDC’s long-term investment in SAGI has created enduring capacity in world-class biometricians in Australia and this generation of mid-career statisticians will continue to benefit the grains industry as they grow into our next crop of statistical leaders.
“The industry outcomes generated from the SAGI investment will be a massive step forward for the Australian grains industry as it strives to provide our growers with the tools they need to remain profitable in the face of climate, environmental and economic challenges,” Dr Jefferies said.
Each of the regional SAGI Nodes (North, South, and West) will provide support for trial design and data analysis for projects relevant to their regions – these are projects developed as part of GRDC’s Grower and Applied R&D business groups.
The regional nodes will also be responsible for providing statistical training and support for regional agronomists, providing training, mentoring and statistical research collaborative support to researchers, and training a new generation of highly-skilled biometricians.
The SAGI regional nodes will be closely linked to each other and to the national node through training and research initiatives, as well as collaborative projects.
The National node, based at the University of Wollongong (UOW), will carry out the same support and collaborative activities as its regional counterparts but will do so for GRDC’s high-value long-term Genetic and Enabling Technologies business group projects.
These projects include the National Variety Trials system, publicly-funded plant breeding programs and those which aim to solve industry important issues such as late maturity -amylase in wheat and blackleg in canola.
Importantly, the National node will also oversee the National Quality Assurance System for Biometrics in the Grains Industry (NQASBGI) which will ensure the quality of statistics provided by all SAGI nodes and will also form a comprehensive resource for all statisticians in the SAGI-3 projects.
SAGI National project leader Dr Ky Mathews, former lead statistician at The International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), says that recent advances in statistical methodology have provided plant breeders with a cost-effective way of improving the accuracy of their breeding programs.
“Producing a new variety of wheat, for example, takes about eight years from the time the original cross is made to the time a variety is ready for release to the grower,” Dr Mathews said.
“Effectively, we’re improving the speed and accuracy of selection and therefore the rate of genetic gain. The real benefit of using best practice statistical methods is that it’s a low cost for a big gain.”
The GRDC also has a parallel statistics investment at UOW worth $1.6 million over three years. This project will be led by long-time collaborator with the GRDC, Professor Brian Cullis, who is the director of the Centre for Bioinformatics and Biometrics within UOW’s National Institute for Applied Statistics Research (NIASRA). The project will develop cutting-edge statistical software that is essential for plant breeding programs.
Professor Cullis says the genomic revolution has been a game changer for plant breeding because of the complexity and the size of the data being generated “but the power of our software hasn’t kept up with these changes”.
“Essentially, this project is about improving the algorithms we use to make them more efficient so we can add more data and get it analysed in real time for the plant breeders,” he said.
The western node will be based at Curtin University, managed by the Curtin and GRDC-supported Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM) and Curtin’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
The SAGI West node, being led by Professor Adrian Baddeley – a renowned statistician working on spatial data analytics – and managed by CCDM, will provide support and training to more than 30 GRDC project investments in the western region.
“The SAGI West team is looking forward to working with the WA grains industry to help improve the rigour of field research and ensure all GRDC products and services are produced using statistically valid data,” CCDM Director (Agronomy and Agribusiness) Professor Mark Gibberd said.
Through education initiatives, SAGI West will play a much-needed role in improving the capability of local researchers.
“SAGI West is another example of Curtin and the GRDC co-supporting grains research to improve the profitability and sustainability of Australian farming businesses,” Professor Gibberd said.
“The project will give local researchers the confidence that their results are reliable and can be used by growers to make profitable changes on their properties.”
The SAGI West team will work closely with the GRDC’s Western Regional Cropping Solutions Network to improve statistical support of projects developed through the five port zones.
“In the western region, one of the major research priorities is frost, with growers constantly grappling with this issue in recent years. SAGI West is supporting researchers within the National Frost Initiative with more efficient experimental designs and analyses, so they can more precisely measure the impact of frost on grain crops,” Professor Gibberd said.
He said SAGI West was uniquely and advantageously placed at Curtin and in addition to its links with the CCDM, SAGI West plans to work closely with Professor Simon Cook, the Premier’s Fellow for Agriculture and Food, who was recently appointed to carry out digital agriculture research.
“Being co-located with other world class research teams and working collaboratively with them has greatly extended our ability to understand and apply statistical methodology to new issues,” Professor Gibberd said.
SAGI South will be led by the University of Adelaide, with co-investment from the University and the South Australian Research and Development Institute.
The SAGI South project leader is senior statistician Dr Olena Kravchuk, of the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the Waite campus. She says the GRDC’s investment in SAGI-3 will have a broad beneficial impact on grains research.
“As well as boosting the biometry expertise and capability at the Waite campus, we will be working closely with researchers throughout the southern region (SA, Victoria and Tasmania) as our capacity permits and building productive relationships with agronomists and growers across the south,” Dr Kravchuk said.
Supported by a team of 12 statisticians and data scientists – including lead researchers Dr Julian Taylor, Dr Helena Oakey, Dr Beverley Gogel and Dr Andy Timmins – Dr Kravchuk says SAGI South will provide statistical methodology to grains research projects in the region and lead capacity building in experimental design and analysis skills in the southern grains industry through academic courses, tailored professional development workshops and internship programs.
“We will also promote the adoption of efficient statistical methodologies through developing and making available user-oriented online applications.
“As well, SAGI South will be advancing statistical methodologies in plant genetics, statistical computing and comparative agricultural experiments through our statistical research, supervision of graduate students and national and international collaborations with leading statistical and bio-research groups and Australian and international statistical societies,” Dr Kravchuk said.
SAGI North will be led by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF).
SAGI North leader Dr Alison Kelly, of DAF, says a priority of the node will be to continue building a collaborative culture with research scientists so that statistics are implemented more effectively in grains research.
“We have established relationships with many research scientists working across the full spectrum of GRDC research themes in the northern region, including soilborne pathogens of crown rot and nematodes; foliar pathogens of cereal crops; agronomy, soil and weed research; sorghum and mungbean pre-breeding and genomics; and physiological traits of staygreen and root architecture, as well as drought and heat tolerance. These relationships will continue to be strengthened through SAGI-3,” Dr Kelly said.
Another focus for SAGI North is to build capability for statistics within the northern region, and nationally, through training the next generation of biometricians.
“We have a team of 10 biometricians within DAF working on GRDC projects and are aiming to soon fill an additional vacancy,” Dr Kelly said. “We also have a team of three bioinformatics scientists working on tools for data capture and storage for agricultural research.”
Dr Kelly said SAGI North would also be responsible for building capability for statistics in the northern region, and nationally, through upskilling the next generation of research scientists.
“We have a structured training program to build on undergraduate studies in statistics and enhance the quantitative capabilities of the current generation of research scientists. Into the future, there is an increasing need for data management, analysis and software skills for all research scientists to handle the volumes of data that can be generated, and turn this into information.
“Coupled with this is the crucial need to be grounded in experimental design and scientific methodology to design comparative studies based on scientific research questions, rather than just mining data for patterns and describing relationships,” Dr Kelly said.
Hollie Webster, GRDC
Sharon Watt, Porter Novelli
GRDC Project code: UA00164, CUR00026, DAQ00208, UW00009, UW00010
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