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Utah State University and a governmental research arm based in Scotland recently formed a partnership to collaborate on research in environmental and agricultural science.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between USU President Noelle Cockett and Colin Campbell, chief executive of the James Hutton Institute, during a virtual meeting on April 20, the university stated in a news release.

“Utah State University faculty are dedicated to … work that significantly addresses climate change in the Mountain West region,” Cockett said in the release. “The global partnership … will lead to a more sustainable future, particularly by improving the world's food supply.”

USU’s agricultural heritage dates back to its founding in 1888, when the institution was known as the Agricultural College of Utah. More than a century later, the school continues to highlight its research mission and agriculture roots — with a focal point being the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, led by dean Ken White, who is also vice president of USU Extension.

The purpose of the Institute — named after James Hutton, an 18th century Scottish geologist and agriculturalist — is to utilize research to understand global issues and provide management and technological solutions to address them. It employs some 500 people, including post-graduate researchers.

White said the story of the agreement between USU and the institute began when White took a phone call from Ian Houston, president and Washington D.C. ambassador of the Scottish Business Network.

“He had become familiar with USU, and more specifically, had read the types of research and programs of several of our departments in the college and felt there was great synergy between our interests and the interests of JHI,” White wrote in an email to the newspaper. “The next step was to invite key department heads to get involved. The plants, soils, and climate department seemed like a logical first step because of JHI interest in enhancing soil health, and helping to adapt to climate change by developing drought resistant crops, etc.”

Paul Johnson, head of the aforementioned department, who attended the virtual meeting with Cockett, was pleased with the agreement.

“It’s just the beginning, truly, but it’s a good starting point,” he said.

Johnson is going to start trying to find “natural potential collaborations” that the Hutton Institute could work on with his department’s faculty. He also envisions graduate plant, soil and climate students traveling to Scotland to work with the institute on occasion.

“I like to say staying overseas or having significant experiences like that makes the world bigger and smaller at the same time,” Johnson said. “They realize the opportunities and the wealth and diversity of people. It also makes (the world) smaller because they (students) realize they’re like us, too.”

Speaking further about the goal of the partnership and Cockett’s comments about improving the world’s food supply.

“The ongoing goal for most scientists in agriculture is, and has been for many years, to address enhancing food security,” he wrote. “There have been many different reasons for food insecurity over the years. Climate change and loss of high-quality agriculture production land by development are some of the most recent threats to food security. The current drought in Utah has brought this into focus to producers in the state, but food security is always a concern.”

Houston stated in the news release and in an interview that agriculture is “not a thing of the past” — it is current.

“Innovation will address many of the vexing questions in the future. International cooperation between USU and JHI will share best practices that impact communities around the globe,” he wrote.

White agreed.

“Every day I come to work, I try to think of new ways to help potential students understand how many opportunities there are in the many potential careers in agriculture, and how extremely rewarding those careers can be, particularly to those who are passionate about making a difference in life,” he wrote. “Agriculture without question is a global industry that impacts millions of people every single day.”

Houston closed his email by commenting on the fact that the Hutton Institute is partnering with a university that calls The Scotsman its fight song. According to a story written by USU to commemorate its 100th birthday, while the song’s origins are “spotty,” it is believed the melody could be linked to an old Scottish ballad.

“The historic links between Scotland and Utah run deep. Many Scots emigrated to Utah, and so the USU song reflects that past,” Houston said. “What we need now are modern links like this that carry it forward.”

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