PhD research investigating Xylella fastidiosa

Based at Imperial’s Centre of Environmental Policy and co-supervised by the RHS, PhD student Nick Turnbull is investigating Xylella fastidiosa in the UK

Xylella fastidiosa, the causal agent for a range of plant diseases, has been in the news recently. Readers of RHS membership magazine, The Garden, will have read about it in the September 2017 issue. You may have also seen mention of it in the national media with Head of Plant Health, at the RHS, Dr Gerard Clover, calling the threat of X. fastidiosa potentially ‘game-changing’ for UK’s gardens. It, therefore, seems entirely right that the charity is focussing on Plant Health in 2018.

So far, no known outbreaks of X. fastidiosa have been identified in the UK but the risk is very high. Originally confined to the Americas, it is now in mainland Europe, notably in Italy, France and Spain.

How can we manage the risk of Xylella fastidiosa? This question will lie at the heart of the PhD social science research the RHS has recently sponsored me to do.

Finding the answers

As a former diplomat and soldier, exposed to crises in the Balkans and Afghanistan, I have come to environmental issues late in my career. Yet an MSc in Forestry at Bangor University led eventually to Imperial College, the Centre of Environmental Policy and a research interest in tree diseases. Dutch elm disease was known to me but in recent years the arrival of ash dieback and other diseases seemed to suggest that tree populations were under threat like never before.

  • Why were we not better at anticipating and dealing with such diseases?
  • Why is the biology of disease outpacing the ability of policy-makers to deal with it?

I’ve come to social science as a means of trying to find some of the answers.  

How can society can manage the risks?

Social science, the science of human society, sits beside the sciences that examine the physical and natural world.

Social scientists are increasingly interested in how human society interacts with the physical and natural world; climate change and globalisation are just two features of a rapidly changing world. The unpredictable consequences of such features mean that we increasingly need to understand how human society can manage the risks that come with these challenges. 

The Centre of Environmental Policy draws some of these issues together, across academic disciplines and pools of knowledge, and it is from this understanding that I shall be beginning my research  investigating risk management and communication of Xylella fastidiosa in the UK.

Getting involved

I do hope you’ll be able to help me as my research unfolds in coming months. I look forward to talking to many of you and keeping you informed of my progress.  

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