A Conversation with...

Professor Janet Bainbridge

As chief executive of the Agricultural Technology Organisation UKTI, and a wide experience of working with Government especially scientific regulatory processes and supporting innovation across private sector companies, Professor Janet Bainbridge is a leading light in the UK Agri-Tech sector. She has seen many changes in both science and industry since securing her first first tenured university position in 1976 but she remains grounded, with family life balancing a hectic work schedule. Prof Bainbridge opened the CHAP Natural Light Growing Centre last year and we caught up with her again for this interview at the beginning of the year.

How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do?

The introduction I might use will depend on the circumstances, it could be something rather more formal and professional or it could be quite informal. Even if circumstances require me to use a more formal approach I often say ‘but please call me Janet’.

What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?

There is no such thing as a typical day since I have a broad portfolio of professional and personal activities, but if I am at home it will start early with a walk for my puppy, who is about a year old now. In summer I will almost always go and look around the garden first thing – I am a morning person – so if I have something challenging to do (such as some technical writing or reading a complex publication) if prefer to do it in the morning. However, I am often away, sometimes in quite exotic and distant places. If I have an early flight the day might start well before dawn. Currently I am working on a proposition for Northern Powerhouse and hope to collate the evidence to persuade them to put specialist resource into support of the agri-food sector to encourage both trade and investment in agri-tech.

How do you think the UK’s agriculture sector has developed since the creation of the four Agri-Tech Centres for Innovation?

The four centres of innovation have moved the agri-tech sector forward, started to deliver into the industry and are providing an efficient first stop for enquiries. However, they need to evidence that they are sustainable; the best way to do this is to attract more private sector investment. Over a very long career I have seen so may initiatives come and go. The centres jointly need to be responsive to the many opportunities and challenges that will be created, however Brexit ultimately pans out, and to do this they need to be close to Government, especially policy-makers in DEFRA so that they can inform and not simply be reactive.

What is your biggest achievement to date – personal or professional?

Apart from the personal achievement of raising two happy children – both now adults with successful (non-scientific) careers – I believe one of my greatest achievements was being awarded an OBE by the Queen in the Millennium Honours. Most people assume it was for all the regulatory work that I have done, such as chairing scientific advisory committees etc, but it was actually for my academic research achievements – Services to Science And Technology. I also have a daffodil – registered by the RHS – named after me (using my married name) it was a wedding present from the breeder!

In the early days of your career did you have a role model or mentor whose work inspired you? Who were they and how did they influence you/your work?

Yes I had several… The senior person who appointed me to the role of Research Microbiologist for Sainsbury Ltd, my first job, and made me head of microbiology research after three years. My PhD supervisor at Durham University who took a risk allowing me to start on a part-time basis 12 years after my first degree. The academic who interviewed me for my first tenured university position who appointed me to a university department that was then 100% male in terms of both staff and students (well it was back in 1976!) and he treated me equally and showed me that there was no limit to the opportunities available for a female biochemical engineer.

What do you think will be the biggest change in agriculture over the next five years?

I think we will see more merging of disciplines to help agri challenges such as application of AI, Data collection, genetics, robotics and response to regulatory changes and the ‘simplification’ of many of agri technologies to make them cheaper and accessible to all farmers around the world as they all have to respond to the many challenges of climate change, sustainable food production and response to consumer eating habits.

What advice would you give to recent new entrants to the agricultural innovation sector?

Work hard, ask questions and think globally across disciplines and political boundaries. But most of all, recognise the need to be collaborative: the challenges are much bigger than the individual. Recognise that feeding the world is in the hands of agriculture!

What would you most like to be remembered for?

Being a helpful mentor to several agri-tech start-up businesses, helping students who struggled to reach success, being a team player. Perhaps most of all, bridging gaps between academic, business and the public sector, but remaining humble.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I love working so much that it is hard to say when I am not working – for instance I read scientific papers all the time!! But to show that I do try to have a life outside the career- I love to see my family, walk the dog, am a very keen gardener and an active trained Samaritan listener. I recently downsized and have managed a building project and done a lot of decorating!

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Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.