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. Photo: DAF

Statistics investment to underpin northern grains research advances

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 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.

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.

The SAGI northern node will be closely linked to the southern and western nodes and to the national node through training and research initiatives, as well as collaborative projects. The National node, based at the University of Wollongong 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, such as the National Variety Trials.

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. 

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