Plant physiology research reveals unique aspects of the biosphere's primary producers, and plants also provide excellent model systems to understand general biological principles. From a practical standpoint, plant physiology research is relevant to: enhancing crop quality and yield to provide in a sustainable manner food, energy, fiber, wood, and other natural products for a rapidly growing human population; maintaining and enhancing plant productivity and diversity in stressful environmental conditions; and developing novel uses of plants, plant cultures, and plant secondary metabolism, including identification of new pharmaceuticals. Finally, plant physiology research is an essential support for ecology, entomology, soil science, forestry science, environmental science, range and wildlife science, food science, and evolutionary biology. Given the powerful research techniques now available, the next decades provide an unparalleledopportunity to extend our current rudimentary knowledge of plant physiology for the advancement of basic biological knowledge and plant improvement.
To support the highest quality plant physiology research, we must bring together reductionist and organismal disciplines and foster, when appropriate and not artificial, integrative and interdisciplinary approaches. Many of the most important questions in plant physiology, because of their complexity, require an integrated approach. The questions encompass regulation by ions and hormones; signal transduction; interactions with pathogens and symbionts; responses and adaptations to environmental stress; regulation by the cell surface, cell walls, and the cytoskeleton; and metabolic mechanisms, especially photosynthesis and respiration.
We must also find ways to fund more qualified researchers with more consistency, which will also encourage more young people to choose plant research as a career. Current problems with insufficient funding could be helped by use of professional lobbyists to secure more funds, establishing systems more like the Canadian one so that productive laboratories have at least baseline continuous support, awarding grants to more researchers even if many grants were smaller (perhaps with capped overhead), and distribution of a much higher percentage of federal plant research funds through a competitive process open to universities. Federal funds to help universities maintain large research equipment are also highly valued.
There is a critical need to attract the brightest students into plant physiology research and to make sure that they are broadly trained and able to understand plants as organisms as well as particular technical approaches to research. This goal can be aided by fostering dynamic teaching about plants from elementary school onwards, by increasing the level of secondary school teaching in related sciences and mathematics and analytical thinking, by promoting broad exposure of undergraduate and graduate students to courses ranging from organismic to molecular biology, by creating a funding system that is not so dispiriting to potential plant researchers because of scarcity, and by establishing more programs to support the best students during the early stages of their career from graduate school to assistant professor. Federal agencies should establish a program that allows professors to buy teaching time for development of effective courses with materials transmittable to other professors, for example, courses incorporating multimedia presentations and stimulating laboratory experiences. Teaching effectiveness in the plant sciences could also be promoted by development of a free, Internet-accessible electronic archive of relevant materials.
We must maintain breadth in our funding support for plant physiology research. Arabidopsis and maize are often good models, but it would be short-sighted to limit research to these or any other few systems. We must not become infatuated with any particular set of techniques but should use all tools as appropriate to answer fundamental questions on all levels of plant organization and interaction with the environment. We must stress to students that the best research will always be done by those with broad basic knowledge and flexibility to employ diverse techniques as needed. We must continue to support basic and applied research, recognizing that the best work often overlaps this distinction. Although opinions varied greatly, an average response of section members was that research funds be allocated to about 65 percent basic and 35 percent applied research, because basic research will drive future applied advances.