ALREADY reeling from the loss of its Canberra glass house complex in a massive hailstorm in late January, the CSIRO’s crop research program is now being compromised by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions which are hampering the organisation’s capacity to conduct vital field trials.
A ‘super cell’ hail storm that hit Canberra in January destroyed 63 glass houses at the CSIRO’s Black Mountain centre, wrecking important plant experiments (see Grain Central story).
Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the problem through the imposition of severe travel restrictions which threaten the CSIRO’s ability to sow trials and collect data from sites throughout the cropping regions.
CSIRO chief research scientist, Dr Greg Rebetzke, said plant research had been battered by what he described as “possibly as close as you can get to scientific Armageddon”.
“We had the bushfires which meant a lot of Canberra researchers had no chance to have a holiday. Then towards the end of January there was the glasshouse debacle. Now we are having the issue with COVID-19 which is constraining our capacity to undertake field research,” he said.
“I’m proud of the fact that CSIRO promotes field research away from Canberra on farmers’ fields. That often requires overnight travel to distant communities, but we are unable to do that at the moment.”
Dr Rebetzke said CSIRO was negotiating with research providers such as the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Kalyx and a number of other agencies to assist with maintaining some of the experiments.
He said one of the key funders, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), had been very supportive and had relaxed dates around milestones.
However, he was concerned that the economic fallout from the COVID-19 episode was likely to see funding for research come under increasing pressure.
“We will probably see a tightening up of internal funding because of the economic situation. We are preparing ourselves,” he said.
Long road to restoration
Dr Rebetzke said work to restore the glass house complex destroyed by the hailstorm in Canberra was still in the early stages and a long way from being back in business.
“The glasshouses have had all their glass removed. The plan was to move to poly carbonate which is much cheaper and easier to repair. That requires new frames,” he said.
“We are knocking down 60 to 70-year-old glasshouses and rebuilding. That will give us improved capacity for heating and cooling, and undertaking experiments.”
Dr Rebetzke said all the experimental plant material in the glass houses had been lost, meaning the programs would have to be started all over.
“The research included long season, long coleoptile wheats; long season weed-competitive wheats; high nitrogen use efficiency; high grain protein wheats; milling quality awnless wheats; a PhD student lost his crossing program and the post-docs lost their breeding programs,” he said.
“If we didn’t have COVID-19 we would be fine because we could bounce back. COVID-19 has really constrained our ability to recover.”
Reflect and refocus
Dr Rebetzke said one of the few positives of the coronavirus lockdown was it had given everyone the opportunity to sit back and refocus.
“Scientists as a community have rallied together, the growers have been amazing, and access to research providers like state departments of agriculture has been great. They have really stepped up to ask us our needs and if they can help,” he said.
“This time at home is a chance for everyone to work together and communicate as one CSIRO and prepare for what happens in two to four months’ time.”
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