Plant Science Excellence IV White Paper
Integrating and Diversifying Plant Science for a Changing World: Report by the Plant Science Excellence Committee IV
Committee members: Martin Chilvers, Jeff Conner, Rebecca Grumet, Polly Hsu, Sarah Lebeis Tammy Long, David Rothstein, Berkley Walker, David Lowry (Chair)
Positioning Michigan State University plant sciences to lead in confronting grand challenges of the 21st-century
MSU plant science is well-poised to lead in developing solutions for some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century: climate change, food security, the protection of species, and the management of ecosystems. As home to one of the largest communities of plant science faculty in the world, with research spanning from the molecular to ecosystem level, we have the expertise to lead large-scale collaborative research that is necessary to address these complex and pressing needs. Importantly, MSU plant science faculty value the integration of basic and applied research and have a strong culture of collaboration across departments and colleges. The combination of our values and extensive expertise underlies our tremendous potential to conduct research with global impact. Going forward, we aim to achieve the goal of the MSU strategic plan that by 2030 “we will be undisputed leaders in plant science and related fields, forging a more resilient future in the face of climate and environmental change.” To achieve this goal, we offer a vision for moving plant sciences forward over the coming decade and offer suggestions for remediating potential barriers to our progress.
Michigan State University is a world leader in plant science research
The MSU plant science community is large and diverse, including the full spectrum from basic science to applied agricultural and natural resource extension with research ranging from the atomic level to global ecosystems. As described in the MSU strategic plan: “Our plant, soil and environmental science scholars are internationally recognized as among the best in the world, and our deep connections from bench to field and partnership networks across the state and around the globe drive rapid translation from discoveries in fundamental plant biochemistry, genetics and genomics to innovation in agricultural systems, crop production and sustainable practices in the environment.” There are ~220 faculty members at MSU that use plant science infrastructure (e.g., field space, greenhouse space, growth chambers, graduate programs, etc.). This plant science community includes members of 7 different departments across 3 colleges that participate in numerous graduate training programs on campus.
The success of MSU plant sciences is due to many factors, including a long history of recurring investment by the university and a strong culture of collaboration. MSU also has extensive resources for plant science research, including the greenhouse and growth chamber facilities, the south campus farms and fields, and a network of 14 AgBioResearch Centers across the state. The proximity of resources to one another on campus creates excellent opportunities for collaboration and the integration of field, greenhouse, and laboratory research.
Plant science grants awarded between 2014-2020 totaled almost $390 million and are on the rise. The three-year running annual average for grants awarded steadily rose from $50.2 million in 2016 to $62.2 million in 2020, averaging an increase of ~$3 million annually. This rise is driven in part by increased rates of funding from major federal sources. For example, funding through NSF grants more than doubled between 2014 and 2020, while similar percent increases were seen for awards from the DOE, USDA/NIFA and NIH. This funding is well-diversified, awarded from over 200 different funding bodies, from federal agencies to numerous industrial and nonprofit organizations.
The MSU plant science faculty value the integration of basic and applied research, which minimizes siloing of ideas and expertise. Critically, we have a strong culture to promote collaboration across departments and across colleges, with most plant science faculty located near each other on campus. To maximize the potential of our strong collective expertise and collaborative culture, there are several proposed actions included in this report.
The Future of Plant Science at MSU
To continue to build on the success of MSU plant science research, and achieve the goals of the MSU strategic plan, increased investment is essential. Doing so will be critical for plant sciences to take on big global challenges and for the University to reach its goal of $1 billion in annual research expenditures by 2030, as outlined in the strategic plan. With the current rate of increase in plant science awards, our community is poised to reach $100 million by 2030, and this rate of increase could accelerate with strategic infrastructure and faculty funding at the university level. Support for the MSU plant science community provides the opportunity to strengthen industry partnerships and develop new businesses here in Michigan.
Further investments that help faculty integrate across disciplines will bring unique synergy not only to the plant sciences, but to the many related disciplines represented on campus. Key investments in faculty, facilities, and training will enable us to build upon and expand/broaden our successes. The following recommendations are made by this committee for confronting 21st century challenges, recruiting/retaining excellent faculty, and increasing research expenditures. Overall, making these investments will help MSU achieve a core goal of its strategic plan: “Be a leader in developing transdisciplinary solutions to ecological and human problems affected by social, economic, political, climate and environmental changes.”
New Faculty Hires
To maintain our competitive edge and take MSU plant science to the next level, we must recruit innovative new faculty members who will build on existing strengths, help to fill critical gaps, and strengthen the current plant science community. Emphasis should be made on hiring collaborative faculty who have strong interest in addressing global challenges, including climate change, food security, and ecosystem conservation, especially faculty who will:
- Build connections between cellular and molecular biology, physiology, genetics, ecology, and evolution
- Translate fundamental to applied research with societal impacts (e.g., agriculture, forestry, conservation, and restoration)
The goal of these searches will be to make MSU a world leader in understanding the mechanistic determinants of plant success for diverse crop, weedy, invasive, and native plants; make fundamental contributions to understanding how plants will respond to climate change through both plasticity and evolutionary adaptation; and determine how crops can be bred to maximize resiliency and yield in the face of unpredictable extreme weather events. This focus directly aligns with the “One Health” concept and specific requests for proposals from DOE, USDA, and NSF, including the NSF Rules of Life “Big Idea” as well as several new programs searching for innovative solutions to climate change. We recommend hiring faculty who conduct research in the following broad areas:
Improved understanding of the interactions between plants and their mutualists, pathogens, and pests in the context of a changing climate. Climate change is impacting, and will continue to impact, plant-biotic interactions in ways that contribute to the loss of biodiversity and threaten sustainable production of food and fiber. Improved understanding of beneficial and antagonistic interactions between plants and viruses, bacteria, fungi and invertebrates are of critical importance for fundamental questions in plant science, maintaining the resilience of crops critical for food security, and sustainable management of ecosystems during this period of unprecedented environmental change. Manipulating plant-biotic interactions through plant breeding and ecosystem management has the potential to improve plant health and resilience to boost crop yields, sustain fiber production, and mitigate the impacts of climate on managed ecosystems. New positions should be focused on bolstering our research profile across multiple dimensions of Plant-Biotic Interactions: from mutualism to parasitism, from molecular to organismal, and from fundamental to applied.
Managing forests and agro-ecosystems to provide food, fiber, and carbon sequestration in a rapidly changing climate. Sustainable management of food and fiber production systems must adapt to a myriad of challenges resulting from climate change, including drought, flooding, insects, diseases, wildfire, and range shifts. Innovative approaches to ecosystem management can provide some of our most cost-effective tools to mitigate the effects of climate change through nature-based solutions. MSU plant sciences should prioritize faculty hires that can lead the development of novel approaches to climate-adaptive ecosystem management. New positions should span a range of scales, from researchers focused on developing new plant varieties with traits that would confer resilience to climate change and improved sequestration of carbon to researchers focused on developing novel approaches to management of agronomic and forest ecosystems.
Integration of large-scale empirical data with computational data science approaches. The stunning technological advances of the past two decades have opened up great opportunities to understand the vast complexity of biological organisms. Plant science research now routinely results in large and diverse data sets that include genomic, metabolomic, physiological, and other phenotypic data. Analyses of these complex data sets, especially in the context of critical environmental and climatic factors, are increasingly challenging and often require novel data science approaches. For MSU to lead in this fast-moving area, we will need to recruit plant science faculty who have data science expertise. At the same time, we must also recruit experts who generate key components of these data sets, especially leaders in phenomics and metabolomics. New positions should focus on hiring leaders in the innovative development of high-throughput techniques as well as the analysis and interpretation of complex large data sets produced by those techniques.
Functional genomics and plant improvement for a changing world. The genomics revolution ushered in a stunning array of new insights into the nature of life and resulted in the development of novel methods for plant improvement. However, genomic studies often result in the generation of key hypotheses that require functional molecular and biochemical techniques to confirm. Many of our top plant molecular biologists and biochemists are nearing retirement or have recently moved to other universities. At the same time, the nascent field of gene/genome editing is in a state of rapid development. New positions should focus on hiring faculty at the forefront of using innovative molecular and biochemical techniques to test hypotheses generated by scientists working with large-scale genomic data. This integrative research will result in a new understanding of plant development and physiology as well as provide the foundational knowledge for improving plant resilience to climate change. To ensure that this research is translated to application for crop improvement, we will also need to hire breeders who are leveraging the latest genomic techniques to achieve higher yields and resilience.
We recommend that most future faculty searches be as broadly defined as possible to allow us to (1) identify excellent candidates that are working in cutting-edge areas that might be overlooked by targeted hires; and (2) better attract candidates from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds and thus, increase diversity in the plant sciences. It is important faculty searches should have strong input from individual units while simultaneously having larger collaborative goals in mind
MSU faculty are also a critical part of achieving the university’s strategic goal to “become a national leader in increasing diversity, promoting inclusion, ensuring equity and eliminating disparities on our campus and beyond.” To achieve that goal, we will aim to hire faculty that are aligned with the MSU strategic plan and thus, “make significant contributions to advancing social justice and ethics, ensuring equity, addressing disparities and empowering communities through scholarship and engaged research.” Recruiting and retaining a community of diverse faculty will result in increased federal funding, high-impact publications, community engagement, and international reputation. It is well understood that representation by Black, Indigenous, and Latino faculty has a major impact on recruitment and retention of diverse undergraduate and graduate students. This sentiment is echoed in the MSU strategic plan: “we cannot serve a diverse local, national and global society if our community does not reflect that diversity and support the success of its members in an inclusive and equitable way.” Therefore, special effort should be devoted to structuring searches to recruit a new cohort of faculty from backgrounds that are currently severely underrepresented in the plant sciences.
Attracting diverse candidates will require the establishment of partnerships with scientific societies that focus on increasing the representation of historically underrepresented groups in STEM, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Establishment of a direct postdoc to faculty fellowship program for underrepresented groups in the plant sciences would also greatly increase our opportunity for recruiting diverse faculty. To ensure the success and retention of these new faculty hires, we must commit ourselves to inclusion by providing quality mentoring and a supportive community throughout their careers.
Improvement of Plant Science Facilities
Plant science research at MSU is dependent on critical infrastructure. Improvements in current facilities are needed to further bolster opportunities for cutting edge science by providing high-quality plant growth facilities and shared resources that will foster research and collaboration that spans from the lab to the field. The following suggestions for infrastructure improvements are listed according to their priority for achieving the goal of making MSU plant sciences a leader in “forging a more resilient future in the face of climate and environmental change.”
1. Climate-Controlled Plant Growth Facilities
The growth facilities (greenhouse and growth chambers) at MSU have supported excellent research but are well-documented to be in dire need of repair, upgrading, and replacing. To advance MSU plant science research in the 21st century, it is essential that MSU faculty have access to not only functional, but state-of-the-art growth facilities. We are optimistic about the current efforts the university has taken to secure baseline funds from the State of Michigan to restore the greenhouses to a functional level. However, these funds will only get us partway to our goal of constructing the world class growth facilities we need to attract and retain the best plant scientists, especially those working on challenges related to climate change resilience and global food security. To become the “undisputed leaders in plant science and related fields,” we must build modern climate-controlled greenhouse facilities that are at minimum on par with our peer institutions, many of which already have these facilities. Further, while our growth chamber facilities are impressive in their scale, we should explore ways to maximize their utility, while investing in new chambers that can better simulate future climate conditions.
Recommendations and key areas for improvement
- Build modern climate-controlled greenhouses that will be sufficient to conduct research on climate change and biotic interactions
- Focus future purchases of growth chamber on specialized chambers that allow for greater manipulation of temperature (heating and cooling), CO2, humidity, and other environmental parameters
- Increased space for testing plant interactions with insect pests, pathogens, and beneficial microbes
- Build common bench spaces for phenotyping plants throughout new greenhouse facilities
- Update the aging greenhouses at the Kellogg Biological Station
- Establish a seed storage facility, where faculty can rent space to store seeds under proper temperature and humidity control
- Include a facility for storage and cataloging beneficial and pathogenic microbes
These improvements should be prioritized and initiated by a group consisting jointly of the current growth chamber and university greenhouse committee. Their charge would be to develop a holistic plan for climate-controlled growth space capacity at MSU with clear opportunity for input from users from the various units. These committees have been invaluable for helping revamp and manage the controlled growth facilities on campus. We recommend that further progress can be made with more formal interaction between these committees to determine if there are areas where the greenhouse and growth chamber facilities can benefit jointly from shared resources.
2. Field Stations and Farms
Diverse field and farm facilities are critical and increasingly important for our ability to address 21st challenges of climate change, food security, and ecosystem preservation. They are also essential to facilitate field-to-lab integration, a key component of the strength of plant sciences at MSU. In recent years, an increasing proportion of the externally-funded plant science research at MSU has been directed toward large-sized crop plants that require dedicated and well-supported field space. This trend is only likely to continue. Already, research groups utilizing the South Campus fields secured over $240 million through grants or contracts between 2015-2019. As plant science research increasingly focuses on the challenges of the 21st century, support for MSU field stations and South Campus fields will become increasingly important. Field stations also serve a vital role in demonstration and extension across the agricultural and natural resource sciences.
Recommendations and key areas for improvement
- Reverse long-term decline in infrastructure: staffing levels, equipment, and maintenance. Farm managers have seen a decline in the numbers and training/experience of their full-time staff, which has reduced their ability to provide services and maintain facilities. In numerous cases, farm vehicles, critical equipment, and building facilities are exceeding their operational lifespan and for some, have reached the point where they are non-repairable and/or dangerous.
- Provide mechanisms to increase access for research programs in departments without dedicated farms/field facilities. Currently, the ability for non-departmental members to use many facilities is constrained by limited resources and overstretched field personnel who are struggling to meet minimal needs for current departmental users. While off-campus sites are important to provide access to varying agricultural and ecological conditions, it is especially important to invest in campus-based field facilities that will be most accessible to a broad range of plant science faculty. Driving long distances with multiple staff is expensive, time consuming, and limits the ability to perform work during critical time frames.
- Invest in cutting edge field equipment and experimental capacity [e.g., phenotyping, drones, precision agriculture, environmental control (e.g., elevated temperature, CO2)]. It should be noted that such facilities also depend on high quality, basic farm infrastructure.
- Invest in applied research/demonstration projects that operationalize cutting-edge climate adaptation strategies for agriculture and silviculture. Such projects can complete the loop from lab to field to industry/agency stakeholder adoption.
3. Construction of a New Plant Science Building
The plant science community at MSU would benefit greatly from a new building to provide more appropriate infrastructure for current and future research programs. The current Plant Biology Laboratories building and Center for Integrated Plant Systems building have numerous problems, including rising cost of basic maintenance, non-functional laboratory systems, poor climate control, accessibility issues for disabled members of our community, and minimal office/meeting space. A new building would also provide the opportunity to reorganize laboratories into a new space with shared resources to create synergistic opportunities to develop solutions to 21st-century challenges, especially those related to climate change.
Recommendations and key areas for improvement
- Build modern laboratories that attract and retain the best group of plant scientists in the world and facilitate foundational and translational research to confront 21st-century challenges
- Include space for plant growth facilities, computation, microbe/pathogen isolation, and the genome core facility
- Provide space to facilitate field-to-lab and lab-to field research (e.g., common-use areas to process field samples and storage space for field samples prior to analysis)
- Balance well-managed collaborative spaces with areas for quiet “deep-work” activities and include common flexible spaces to facilitate interdisciplinary research and interactions
- Construct multi-use spaces to facilitate engagement with the public, including industry partners, K-12 school groups, customers of the plant and pest diagnostics and soil and plant nutrient labs, as well as members of the public interested in living and herbarium collections
- Incorporate principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, including wheelchair-accessible floorplans and research bench spaces
To ensure that the building best serves the various users, the design phase should incorporate extensive feedback from faculty and other stakeholders.
4. Plant Transformation Capacity
Plant transformation and regeneration are essential tools to bridge basic and applied research by translating theoretical improvements to testable proof-of-concepts in species of scientific and agronomic interest. Plant transformation is also required to implement genomic editing, an emerging technology with far-reaching potential to advance plant science. There is an urgent need on the MSU campus to increase the expertise and accessibility for plant transformation in non-model species, especially major crops. Currently, there are numerous labs and facilities that perform plant transformation on campus for their own research, but only the Plant Biotechnology Resource and Outreach Center (PBROC) in the Horticulture Department offers transformation services to the whole campus community as a fee-for-service. However, there is no central university support for the PBROC. The director is appointed yearly on a non-recurring basis with partial salary support from project GREEEN. All further needs for the facility (technical support, equipment, supplies, etc.) must be generated by user fees. In contrast, a 2016 survey of other U.S. university-based transformation facilities showed support of 2.3-5.0 FTEs. While PBROC has demonstrated capability to transform more than two dozen plant species in the past two decades, limited support for the facility delays turnaround time, can require faculty to send their own personnel to complete most of the work, or requires that PBROC decline the request for service/assistance.
Recommendations and key areas for improvement
- Conduct a review of MSU plant science user needs and then develop a plan for upgrading and/or overhauling the PBROC.
- Invest in expanding the capacity of plant transformation on the MSU campus by providing increased salary support for experts in plant transformation and gene editing.
- Improve throughput and capacity to transform major crops based on campus needs as well as provide end-to-end services similar to the Transgenic and Genome Editing Facility dedicated for animal research on campus.
- The plant transformation facility should be managed in partnership with organizing a committee comprised of faculty that perform plant transformations, similar to the greenhouse and growth chamber facilities. This new committee would:
- Establish what resources (i.e., growth facilities, technologies, salary support) would best benefit the ability to support transformation needs on campus.
- Determine what outside partnerships could best complement on-campus offerings. These partnerships, for example, could ensure better rates for MSU researchers by negotiating bulk transformation requests.
- Oversee the creation of a central web portal for MSU researchers to see on a single page what capacities are currently available on campus in the various labs and any outside partnerships established.
5. University Supporting Facilities
The university maintains other critical facilities that are extensively utilized by the plant science community. Among these are the Research Technology Support Facility (RTSF), the Center for Advanced Microscopy, and the Institute for Cyber Enabled Research (ICER). We urge the university to continue to invest in these critical resources. As new technologies are developed, central facilities will need to maintain throughput, innovation, and in-house expertise to help the community adopt those technologies.
Recommendations and key areas for improvement
- Continuous investment in cutting-edge instrumentation and expertise based on regular surveys of the research needs from the core facility users.
- Improve analytical facilities for plant tissue analyses.
- Efforts should be made to help facilitate faculty applications for grants to build and enhance supporting facilities.
Education and Training
To earn and sustain our presence as a global leader, we must not only solve grand challenge problems, but show that we are also capable of producing next-generation leaders who will continue to do so into the future. Climate change, food security, and preserving ecosystem services are challenges that require large-scale collaborative approaches that integrate knowledge and expertise across scales, systems, and disciplines. As such, our approach to education should bolster our commitment to research excellence and equip students with the skills, knowledge, and experiences that prepare them as future leaders in multiple sectors of society. High-quality education and training programs attract exceptional students that contribute fundamentally to our research objectives and leadership potential.
MSU Plant Sciences should be recognized for:
- Acquiring training grant funding (NRT, T32, REU programs) that achieves excellence in undergraduate and graduate student training
- Producing PhDs that are highly sought for their research productivity, innovative approaches, and ability to communicate their science effectively in diverse contexts
- Graduating students at all levels that are scientifically literate, competent in analytic and quantitative reasoning, and proficient in translating research findings into actionable policies and practices
- Supporting faculty to employ evidence-based teaching and mentoring practices to create curricula and training experiences that promote student success
Recommendations and key areas for improvement:
- Establish a Plant Sciences Education Task Force. This standing committee would be comprised of Graduate and Undergraduate Directors of Plant Science units along with rotating elected members (faculty, postdocs, graduate, and undergraduate students). The primary function of this committee would be to coordinate communication, build synergies, and improve training outcomes across plant science units. Specific charges to the committee could include:
- Develop visuals and support materials to help users better understand and navigate the structure of plant sciences through our online presence, recruitment materials, and outreach efforts. The number and diversity of administrative units that comprise plant sciences at MSU make it difficult to appreciate the range of scientific questions posed by our community. More effective tools are necessary for improving our communication with prospective students, job candidates, and the general public.
- Review plant science curricula and training programs to improve education outcomes. Plant science in the 21st century requires a fundamentally different skill set than decades past. Current emphases on computation, quantitation, and information/data literacy are absent from the curricular objectives of many of our plant science majors. We recommend a comprehensive review of plant science curricula at both the graduate and undergraduate levels to clarify goals of major programs, identify gaps and/or redundancies in existing curricula, and recommend curricular revisions as necessary. In addition, the task force could work to identify bottlenecks and barriers that prevent students from timely completion or cause students to leave plant science majors.
- Identify opportunities for synergies that promote cross-disciplinary interactions and improve efficiency. For example, plant sciences could collaborate in their offerings of seminars, workshops, and training initiatives that share a common goal (e.g., graduate seminars in science communication, faculty teaching workshops, undergraduate research, and internships). Interdepartmental offerings could help unify plant sciences, expand participation, and promote diversity in the types of training offered.
- Support evidence-based and inclusive teaching and mentoring practices. Substantial research has linked positive educational outcomes (e.g., degree completion, persistence in major) to evidence-based teaching and mentoring practices, particularly for students from historically underrepresented groups. If we are to not only attract, but retain and graduate students from diverse backgrounds, faculty should be supported and rewarded for contributing to curricular renovation efforts (e.g., recommendation #1) and participating in training that enables them to improve teaching and mentoring practices. We recommend:
- Incorporating training in teaching and mentoring into the onboarding process for new faculty. Instead of merely releasing new faculty from teaching in their first semester or year, faculty could be onboarded into a FLC (faculty learning community) in which they receive training in effective teaching and mentoring practices. The FLC can provide sustained peer support as new faculty develop classroom materials for the courses they will teach and mentoring strategies for their labs.
- Expanding opportunities for graduate students and postdocs to participate in teaching and mentoring training through workshops, courses, and certificate programs (e.g., College Science Teaching Certificate, Future Academic Scholars in Teaching, Pathways to Scientific Teaching, STEM Teaching & Learning Forum, etc.)
- Identify strategies that expand recruitment and funding opportunities for diverse students and postdocs. To build a diverse community of scholars, we must devise new and innovative strategies for supporting students with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Existing training grants were broadly viewed as favorable but limited in terms of their reach and numbers of students served. Plant science has tremendous potential to expand its reach by intersecting with diverse disciplines, such as public health, computation, journalism, sustainability, geoscience, nutrition, anthropology, urban planning, history/philosophy, etc. By expanding the definition of what it means to do ‘plant science’, we open the door to greater diversity in the types of research and researchers included in that definition, as well as opportunities for funding it. We recommend a portfolio of strategies to attract, retain, and support diverse trainees including:
- Targeted fellowships for students from diverse backgrounds and/or those pursuing interdisciplinary interests or integrative research (e.g., plant science with public health, computation, journalism, geoscience, etc).
- Proposals for training grants, research centers, or institutes organized around interdisciplinary or challenge-based themes.
- Establish partnerships for recruitment with Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as undergraduate programs (McNair/SROP/REU) that have achieved excellence in recruiting diverse undergraduate students.
- Amplify the profile of MSU outreach by supporting explicit links with education and research. MSU has a wealth of resources that target outreach objectives (e.g., Beal Gardens, MSU Herbarium, 4-H Children’s Garden, the Student Organic Farm, etc). We recommend leveraging these resources for innovative and community-engaged education and research by:
- Including outreach (initiatives and resources) in the planning and communication efforts of the task force charged with recommendation #1.
- Providing internal funding opportunities for projects aimed at linking outreach with education and/or research (e.g., curricula, projects, experiences, or novel resources that promote integration of outreach with education or research objectives). Proposals could be structured as seed grants that could lead to external funding (e.g., NSF’s Informal Science Education program).
- Creating more and diverse ways for the public to engage with MSU plant sciences. For example, developing digitally-guided walking tours that use apps and QR codes to highlight resources of interest (e.g., special plants, commemorative trees, woodlot trails, research facilities, prairie restorations, student-driven projects) or facilitate users’ plant identification skills. Incorporating the development of such tools and strategies into existing course curricula (e.g., PLB 203, 218, 418, 843; FW 443; HRT 100, 211, 212, 415) could be a novel strategy for achieving this aim.