Forty years of scientific research, a journey of exploration?

J. Palmer
I have been privileged to spend over forty years in the field of crop physiology in perennial fruit crops, primarily with apples and pears, although more recently with kiwifruit. I purposely used the word privileged, as looking back over my research career I have seen many good colleagues made redundant. This was a reflection of cutbacks in funding based on a very shortsighted approach to science but unfortunately resulted in a loss of our collective skill base. I am also privileged to have known many of the leading lights of environmental physiology and pomology on the international stage and appreciated their friendship and encouragement. I began my career at East Malling Research Station in Kent, UK, in 1968, when science funding in the UK was good and one had the opportunity to explore one's field of interest without the detailed preset objectives and specified outcomes that are essential in today's competitive funding environment. Scientific research shares great similarities with exploration. In some cases we are limited in where we can go by finance or equipment. In other cases, like Captain Scott, we find that others have got there first or we find we are filling in the details on what others have already discovered - a not unimportant role, nonetheless. Lack of funding has certainly limited my research objectives, for example, I would have liked to have examined far more the implications of sustainability within the orchard production system, as I firmly believe that with the limited world's resources, we need to be far more efficient in the use of resources in our food production systems from field to plate. On the other hand, the issue of fruit quality, which first exercised my research at East Malling, has been a continuing theme of my work. We began with looking at within-tree variation in apple fruit quality, which revealed the importance of light exposure, which in turn led to work on light interception and distribution within the canopy. In later years I returned to fruit quality with the linking of fruit dry matter concentration to eating quality. My career has roughly been split into two, with the first twenty years at East Malling, focused primarily on light interception and distribution, and the second twenty years in New Zealand, where I have had a much wider brief including rootstocks and nursery tree production. While at East Malling the interest in light interception led naturally to planting systems, and although this was initially followed in New Zealand, funding reductions limited my opportunities to develop this area. I am encouraged, however, that the team under my colleague Stuart Tustin is once again able to develop this area in New Zealand. Over the last forty years we have seen great advances in electronics and computers. This has enabled us to now routinely and easily measure leaf and canopy gas exchange and to conveniently analyze the results from our desk computers. However, keen observation is still a key to good research. More recently we have also seen the rise of molecular biology. Unfortunately this was initially heralded as a replacement for traditional plant physiology, which resulted in a wholesale downsizing of plant physiology as we had known it. Fortunately we are now seeing some redress of the balance of these disciplines, with new tools being available from molecular biologists to enable us to probe deeper into plant processes as they are influenced by the environment. The work we have done on the effect of fruit temperature on apple skin coloration is an example of fruitful collaboration between the disciplines. I find it encouraging that not only is the role of traditional plant physiology again being acknowledged but also we now have equipment available to us that I could have only dreamt of when I began my career. The exploration is not finished, there are yet more peaks and regions to explore and develop if we are to sustainably feed a growing population with our limited resources. Although space was said to be the final frontier, there is still much to explore in the field of plant physiology, where we still need those who will “boldly go where no one has gone before”. The final scientific frontier for the vast majority of humanity may be much more along the lines of Norman Borlaug's scientific contribution than the frontier of space, fascinating though it may be.
Palmer, J. (2017). Forty years of scientific research, a journey of exploration?. Acta Hortic. 1177, 12-28
DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.2017.1177.2
apple, research progress, light interception, light distribution, tree canopies, dry matter production, harvest index, fruit dry matter concentration, fruit quality

Acta Horticulturae