Inspiring peopleMartin Broadley

Plant nutrition, with a focus on the nutritional quality of crops and food systems

Professor Martin Broadley

How would you explain your research?

Our research seeks to better understand how soil and crop management can improve the nutritional quality of crops consumed by humans and livestock. The work is framed within a wider geographical context, GeoNutrition.

More than two billion people lack access to sufficient mineral micronutrients in their diets.
What inspired you to pursue this area of research?

It was over 20 years ago when I first heard that more than two billion people lacked access to sufficient mineral micronutrients in their diets, even when sufficient energy was available. I was shocked then at the pervasiveness of this ‘hidden hunger’, and I remain so now. 

Hidden hunger is much more prevalent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, although is global in reach, including in the UK. The opportunities for multidisciplinary research, at multiple-scales, and with lots of different people, was also an appealing way to spend my time. 

How will your research affect the average person?

Everyone has a fundamental right to access adequate, nutritious and safe food, at all times. GeoNutrition approaches are helping to provide the evidence on where the risks of hidden hunger are greatest, for whom, and why. They also allow us to test the effectiveness of agricultural interventions to reduce these risks most equitably. 

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

We work with many talented researchers, including in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. However, the single biggest challenge for our field is a general lack of research capacity in many of our partner countries. This includes a lack of academic staff and researchers, technical specialists, research administrators, alongside laboratory infrastructure. There are typically fewer than 50 researchers per million people, including PhD students, in most sub-Saharan African countries. This compares to more than 4,000 in the UK and the US, and more than 7,000 in Sweden.

Given the substantial UK investment in research and development in the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget, including the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), we need to find innovative ways to tackle this asymmetry. Researchers and institutes can play a major role in this space by thinking much more about equitable research partnerships, and how these might be achieved.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

In terms of career and security, getting an academic position at Nottingham as a lecturer in 2003, and promotions leading to a personal chair in 2013.

There are two moments of much greater personal significance. The first came during a period in 2015. We’d started working on a doctoral (PhD) training capacity strengthening project, with colleagues in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. During our inception period, we engaged in intensive interactions with social scientists to help frame our activities in a ‘Theory of Change’.

The outcome for me was that I felt much better equipped to abstract/conceptualise the roles of individual and institutional agency, and to find ways to navigate the complex power dynamics that dominate academia and elsewhere. I needed this period, not just to be able to manage this project, but to make sense of what I wanted to achieve during the rest of my working life, and with whom. The period also led directly to me becoming a part-time Senior Research Fellow in the Department for International Development (DFID) in early 2017.

The second moment came in late-2017, when we secured a major research investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). We’d been involved in intensive co-design discussions with BMGF for about 18 months, building on ‘lessons learned’ during the doctoral training capacity strengthening project, and many years of smaller scale studies and collaborations.

This investment has given us a unique opportunity to work at scale – including with some wonderful research partners and new PhD students in Ethiopia and Malawi – and across disciplinary domains that are beyond the scope of many traditional research projects, including collaborations with social scientists and ethicists. 

Capacity strengthening is about relinquishing power. This is much easier said than done, and it is also much easier, of course, from a position of privilege. 

Capacity strengthening is about relinquishing power. This is much easier said than done, and it is also much easier, of course, from a position of privilege.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Always treat advice from people like me with due caution (and scepticism). I don’t say this glibly, ‘survivorship bias’ skews narratives and creates exclusionary environments. The best advice is usually context-specific.

If I had to give a generic piece of advice, then I’d encourage people to work on their writing skills as much as possible. It is hugely empowering. Don’t rely on your supervisors, they might not be so good at it; we can all improve. Find mentors, courses, online resources, peer-groups. If you have the confidence, then develop shorter, blog-style pieces to appeal to broader readerships. Or keep a private reflective diary/learning journal. Doing these things will help your technical writing style, and it will also help you to frame your work in ways that will appeal to potential collaborators, funders and/or employers. 

Some of the most useful advice I ever got was on a technical writing course in the late 1990s, just after I’d completed my PhD. The course taught me to explore writing at multiple scales, from the smallest details through to wider narrative structures. The advice helped me to find and communicate my academic voice in research papers and literature reviews, and to understand better the words of others. 

I’d encourage people to work on their writing skills as much as possible. It is hugely empowering.
What research other than your own really excites you?

There is a lot, I often try to find ways to collaborate when I see it… one of the benefits of being a plant nutritionist is that it overlaps with many disciplines!

In our Plant and Crop Sciences department, Ian and Julie King are doing exciting work on wheat breeding, using diverse grass relatives. Kate Millar’s bioethics work is fascinating and critical, especially in a development context. Murray Lark’s geostatistical methods to quantify and communicate uncertainty are exciting, I can’t ‘do the math’ but I enjoy engaging with the mapped outputs!  

Are you working with any partners or collaborating?

A huge number, across the UK and all around the world.  For me, it is the most interesting part of the job.

How does being based at the University of Nottingham allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?

Nottingham continues to be an excellent place to fulfil my research aspirations. My managers have let me get on with things and been supportive, which is critical given the immense challenges – professional and personal – in trying to develop, conduct and sustain world-leading research, especially when a lot of the activity is off-site.

I also know that my research aspirations create pressures for others in terms of their teaching, technical, and administrative activities. I hope we can maintain and improve the support, capacity, and kindness – at Nottingham and in the wider research sector – so that others get the same time and space to develop their research aspirations too.

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Martin Broadley is Professor of Plant Nutrition at the University of Nottingham. His research seeks to increase our understanding of mineral nutrient dynamics in agriculture and food systems. A particular focus is on improving the nutritional quality of crops for human and livestock diets. This work includes collaborations with soil and crop scientists, human/animal nutritionists, and social scientists. It also includes the development of long-term research and training partnerships with higher education and government research institutes in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Martin is also a part-time Senior Research Fellow (Agriculture and Food Systems), in the Research and Evidence Division, of the Department for International Development (DFID), UK. Follow Martin on Twitter.



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