Statistics investment to underpin southern grains research advances

Members of the SAGI South team include (front from left) Richard Jarrett, Julian Taylor, Olena Kravchuk, Sabela Munoz Santa, Helena Oakey, Wendy Li, and (rear from left) Bev Gogel, Andy Timmins, Sam Rogers, Chris De Ieso. Absent: Sharon Nielsen, Lachlan Mitchell and Peter Kasprzak. Photo: University of Adelaide

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 (South, North 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 South will be led by the University of Adelaide, with co-investment from the University and the South Australian Research and Development Institute.

The SAGI South project leader is senior statistician Dr Olena Kravchuk, of the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the Waite campus. She says the GRDC’s investment in SAGI-3 will have a broad beneficial impact on grains research.

“As well as boosting the biometry expertise and capability at the Waite campus, we will be working closely with researchers throughout the southern region (SA, Victoria and Tasmania) as our capacity permits and building productive relationships with agronomists and growers across the south,” Dr Kravchuk said.

Supported by a team of 12 statisticians and data scientists – including lead researchers Dr Julian Taylor, Dr Helena Oakey, Dr Beverley Gogel and Dr Andy Timmins – Dr Kravchuk says SAGI South will provide statistical methodology to grains research projects in the region and lead capacity building in experimental design and analysis skills in the southern grains industry through academic courses, tailored professional development workshops and internship programs.

“We will also promote the adoption of efficient statistical methodologies through developing and making available user-oriented online applications.

“As well, SAGI South will be advancing statistical methodologies in plant genetics, statistical computing and comparative agricultural experiments through our statistical research, supervision of graduate students and national and international collaborations with leading statistical and bio-research groups and Australian and international statistical societies,” Dr Kravchuk said.

The SAGI southern node will be closely linked to the northern 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 (UOW), 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 the UOW’s National Institute for Applied Statistics Research (NIASRA). The project will develop cutting-edge statistical software that is essential for plant breeding programs.

Source: GRDC

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