‘A Sustainable Future’ online focus groups

Posted on February 11, 2021   by Microbiology Society

In June and July 2020, as part of the ‘A Sustainable Future’ project, the Policy team ran a series of online focus groups to explore the challenges and opportunities for microbiology in the fields of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the circular economy and soil health. Over the course of three weeks, the online focus groups collectively brought together 105 people including microbiologists, non-microbiology researchers, industry and policy representatives, who discussed what more could be done if there were fewer barriers, and the interventions needed to achieve a sustainable future. Here, early-career researchers Laura and Quentin discuss their experience of the focus groups. 

Quentin Leclerc (PhD student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) 

Towards the end of June, I was invited to participate in an online focus group on interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle AMR. While we all agreed that there was a general interest in interdisciplinary research, we also recognised that we needed more opportunities to develop such projects. I was the only PhD student in the session, yet I was happy to see that the entire group recognised the importance of early career researchers (ECRs) in that context. ECRs represent the future generation of leading scientists, therefore giving us the tools to cooperate with each other across scientific disciplines as early as possible, is essential to develop further interdisciplinary collaborations over the next few years.  

More generally, we identified the need for opportunities to bring together the entire AMR community. As a PhD student, I am lucky to have access to the excellent National AMR PhD Training Programme conference by the Medical Research Foundation, which brings together students from all disciplines working on AMR. However, a similar platform for discussions is currently missing for the broader AMR community. I was already impressed to see how much we could cover with just a small focus group, so I am certain that, for the Microbiology Society, there is definitely value in further facilitating these exchanges across the entire AMR community, either via a conference or a forum. 

Overall, taking part in this focus group was a great experience. I learned a lot about different points of view from high profile researchers with various backgrounds but was also happy to have the opportunity to represent the perspective of ECRs. Interdisciplinary work is definitely the way forward for AMR research, so we must do our best to generate opportunities for such projects, and ECRs have a key role to play in this! 

Laura Lehtovirta-Morley (Senior Royal Society Fellow at the University of East Anglia)  

It was a pleasure to take part in the Soil Health discussion group organised by the Microbiology Society. We discussed our views on the key challenges in soil health with my fellow panellists, and it was interesting to realise that we agreed on so many points and were also split on others. I would like to highlight three main challenges that most resonated with me:  

  1. There is no universal definition for soil health. Soil is a hugely complex system with many functions, so it is difficult to define soil health, and this potentially leaves more space for confusion. We went as far as to discuss whether this term is meaningful and whether it should be re-evaluated or replaced with something else that describes the sustainability of soils more precisely. 

  2. There is a wealth of deep sequencing data and it is now easy and cost-effective to obtain more. For me, the main outstanding challenge here is that functions predicted from sequencing data do not necessarily translate to actual function, microbial physiology or environmental process rates. It would be fantastic to see a concerted effort to link the sequencing data to process rates. 

  3. While there is a lot of soil metadata, the access to both field sites and their associated metadata is sometimes restricted. Interestingly, our panel was split on this topic and some felt that data access is sufficient as it is. In my view, more open access to well-characterised field sites and the data previously acquired from them, could really catapult the research progress we make as a microbiology community. This would allow us to build on each other’s data, avoid having to repeat some of the work and to integrate data better. 

Find out more about our ‘A Sustainable Future’ project here