Seeking Scientific Solutions – Who Decides?

“Putting farmers in the driving seat of research” was the underpinning sentiment of Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme. This initiative is aimed at ensuring the flagship programme is farmer-facing and that it tackles key issues facing the industry.

But how easy – or even desirable – is it to achieve in practice? And who actually decides what scientific research is carried out, and by whom?

Hosting a recent senior delegation from Netherlands’ agri-tech innovation ecosystem has inspired the Agri-TechE team to reflect on the way scientific research is structured and prioritised in the UK – and what it means for farmers seeking urgent answers to new and unprecedented questions.

Haldane and Excellence

Key to the UK’s global research approach has been the so-called “Haldane” principle – the central premise of using peer-review committees to assess project proposals and recommend funding (or not) according to their scientific excellence and potential impact.

This means that only the highest quality research projects are funded, and Government Ministers and civil servants don’t direct or demand which are supported.

This poses the wider question as to how to maintain the balance between “fundamental, blue-skies” research and more applied, strategically-focussed work directed to the needs of the industry.

Too much fundamental science means limited industrial impact – too little and eventually the pipeline dries up as no new or creative ideas and knowledge are being uncovered.

Dig in for the long-term

Research in agriculture and horticulture can be a slow business. Crop seasonality, the long gestation periods of some animals, and the time taken to demonstrate a step change in soil health, for example, all dictate research timelines.

And for new practices such as paludiculture, farmers are asking questions of “the science” which may not have a historical body of published research to draw on. Yet evidence-based decisions are needed today which could impact the next few decades.

UK governments have also traditionally struggled with long-term funding commitments that could be inherited by subsequent administrations. For projects that may take ten years or more to yield meaningful information, this can be a real challenge.  

A Complex Research Landscape

Of course, there’s a lot of research that isn’t publicly funded – charities, levy boards, industry-supported trials – a wide spectrum of the duration, scale and complexity of scientific investigation is underway.

Each funder has their own priorities but there is no collective long-term “grand research plan” for agriculture and horticulture to which everyone is aligned.

On the plus side, such an approach enables freedom of thinking, exploration of both short and longer-term questions, and creative insights. The downside is that it is incredibly difficult to curate and coherently communicate all the outputs, with a risk of fragmentation and duplication of effort.

Keeping pace across the ecosystem

Additionally, other factors are moving at different speeds relative to the pace of the scientific endeavour, which also impact farmer awareness and the rate of adoption of new tools and practices.

These include the development of standards and regulations (slow) and the emergence of new markets such as voluntary carbon markets (very fast). Other drivers such as investor appetite and media interest (variable speeds) are also rarely aligned with the pace of the science.

Going Dutch

Our friends in the Netherlands have a different approach. They have long-term, agreed priority areas spanning the spectrum – or “Technology Readiness Levels” to enable the valuable novel insights arising from “curiosity-driven” research as well as much-needed new industry-focussed knowledge. Farmers, governments, researchers and tech developers from industry and public institutions are all part of a bigger joined-up plan.

A Middle Ground

For nearly a decade Agri-TechE has been helping connect farmers and industry professionals with the research community and funders. We have learned that engagement of scientists with farmers is key – but an appreciation of how science is directed and prioritised is crucial to help manage expectations.

New Tools for a New Future

New tools of artificial intelligence are well-placed to help us navigate what is known already, what research looked promising but needed further investigation, and where the gaps exist, needing more resource and effort. All while maintaining the balance of short, medium, and long-term priorities.  

Such an analysis could also help prepare regulators, and investors – as well as farmers – for their new, science-powered future.

The new Science and Technology Framework states the mission is for the UK to become the most innovative economy in the world.

Let’s get a plan together.

Who’s up for it?

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This post originally appeared on TechToday.