Message from Professor George Ratcliffe

As our colleagues in Zoology know only too well, life can sometimes be too exciting, so it is perhaps with a sense of relief that I can report that Plant Sciences is set steady on an even keel. Some great science has been published in the last few months, as described elsewhere in this newsletter, and there is a palpable sense of more to come as we welcome our largest cohort of new graduate students to the Department for many years.


As noted by Ben Sheldon, the University has approved the conversion of the current Biological Sciences degree into a four year course in Biology, with the discretionary fourth year being devoted in large measure to a research project. This is the culmination of a long campaign by the two Departments to provide an appropriate level of research training in the course, and it brings Biology into line with the majority of the science courses in Oxford. The initial response to this fundamental change from potential applicants attending the Open Days this summer was very positive, and the first undergraduates for the new course will be selected in just a few weeks from now in the December admissions exercise.


We are also working closely with our colleagues in Zoology in planning the future for both departments in a world without Tinbergen. It will be some time before the final decisions on the scale and scope of the new building are made, but there is general agreement that the University has an opportunity to effect a transformational change in the teaching and research of organismal biology in Oxford.


While the new Tinbergen may represent ‘jam tomorrow’, it is pleasing to note that Plant Sciences has recently attracted major philanthropic support for some of its core activities. Notable gifts include a £1m donation from the John Oldacre Foundation to support a DPhil scholarship programme, and a donation of £500,000 to support the digitisation programme in the Oxford University Herbaria was made by Mr Clive Gillmore. Other significant funding news includes support for Dr Tonya Lander’s work on pollinator conservation and management from the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation; and the launch of Brahms v8, a management system for natural history collections, living or dead, that is the culmination of almost three decades of work in the department, and which is now being licensed worldwide through Oxford University Innovation.


Turning to people, a pivotal figure in both teaching and research, Ian Moore, had to take early retirement in May on the grounds of ill health and died just a few months later at the end of August. Many will remember him from lectures, tutorials and practical classes, but we have also lost a scientist of the highest calibre and a great member of the Department.


Finally, away from the laboratory, a graduate student in the Department, Rachel Wheatley, has combined her work on nitrogen-fixing bacteria in Professor Phil Poole’s lab with outstanding sporting achievements, including the award of Oxford University Sportswoman of the Year and membership of the GB National Senior Judo Squad.


R. George Ratcliffe

Head of Plant Sciences