The stats do matter for grains researchers and agronomists

SAGI South Workshop. Image courtesy of GRDC

The statistical skills of grains researchers and agronomists throughout the southern cropping region are being taken to a new level, thanks to training support being offered through the Grains Research and Development Corporation’s Statistics for the Australian Grains Industry (SAGI) program.

A new suite of practical, interactive workshops – available to grains industry practitioners in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania – is now underway to foster widespread adoption of efficient and consistent statistical methods in agronomic research and practice to ultimately better inform growers’ decision-making.

The GRDC earlier in 2018 launched phase three of its SAGI initiative, involving the creation of four nodes (three regional and one national) to deliver high quality statistical science to underpin the scientific rigour of hundreds of research projects.

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 – contributing to enduring profitability for Australian grain growers.

Each of the three regional SAGI Nodes (South, North and West) is 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. The regional nodes will also provide support for trial design and data analysis for projects relevant to their regions.

SAGI South is being led by the University of Adelaide, with co-investment from the University and the South Australian Research and Development Institute. The SAGI South team is based at the Biometry Hub at the University’s Waite campus.

SAGI South project leader, senior statistician Dr Olena Kravchuk, of the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, says the program offers a unique opportunity for researchers and agronomists to develop their skills in the practice of design and analysis of research trials.

“We are doing this through a people-centred workplace education approach which is engaging for the participants,” Dr Kravchuk says. “The training program uses a small-group, face-to-face delivery – this builds learning communities by allowing a close communication between participants and trainers.”

Dr Kravchuk acknowledges the contribution of University of Adelaide senior biometrician Dr Beverley Gogel who was pivotal in establishing the SAGI South Biometrics Education Initiative, through which the training approach was initially framed.

The southern workshops are being presented by SAGI South team members Sam Rogers, Wendy Li and Sharon Nielsen.

Ms Nielsen, who is also managing the training program, is a senior biometrician and has extensive experience in agricultural statistics, including consulting, teaching and research. Mr Rogers and Ms Li are recent statistics graduates from the University of Adelaide’s School of Mathematical Sciences.

Workshops, capped at 15 participants, are being conducted on a regular basis at the Biometry Hub at the Waite, and consideration is being given to the delivery of training in regional areas.

The training program currently comprises three modules: W0 is an introduction to R, a leading and open-source software which gives participants a common language for design, analysis and reporting; W1 is an introduction to design of agronomy trials; and W2 is an introduction to analysis of agronomy trials. The W3 concluding module, an introduction to report writing with R, is under development.

Ms Nielsen says having researchers and agronomists skilled in using R software enables a quick dissemination of tailored and benchmark statistical procedures for design, data analysis and reporting in the region, improving the transparency and the quality of research and extension.

“The overall program is structured and designed so that participants can start from ‘ground zero’ – they learn to handle their data via the R software, progress to being able to design and conduct reproducible analyses of standard agronomy trials with simple responses, and finally present a quality report document,” Ms Nielsen says.

The statistics training program is open to researchers engaged in other agricultural industries. With research providers often moving from one industry to another, better statistical knowledge within the broader research community is considered advantageous for agriculture overall and especially with mixed farming being so prevalent in the southern region.

To support participants beyond their training, Mr Rogers has created infrastructure to connect participants in communities of learning.

He says the next stage of the training program will make full use of this infrastructure in building communities of practice, connecting research providers and agronomists facing similar statistical challenges and enabling productive discussions with experts.

In addition to the delivery of the workshops for agronomists and researchers, members of the SAGI training team are providing statistical support to a portfolio of GRDC regional research investments.

The Biometry Hub also hosts an internship residency program, providing a desk for GRDC-contracted researchers to reside with statisticians for three weeks, during which time they can work on their own experimental design/analysis/reports.

The SAGI southern node will be closely linked to the northern and western nodes through training and research initiatives, as well as collaborative projects. It is also linked to the national node, based at the University of Wollongong, which will carry out the same support and collaborative activities as its regional counterparts but its focus is on the GRDC’s high-value, long-term Genetic and Enabling Technologies business group projects, such as the National Variety Trials.

Source: GRDC

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