DR DAVID REECE

Genomics and knowledge management in innovation systems for LDC agriculture
INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR FELLOW: JANUARY 2015 – DECEMBER 2015
David Reece

Abstract

Nearly 600 million poor people work in agriculture, but could be helped by appropriate new technologies. The development of such technologies requires contributions from a variety of actors. The innovation systems framework provides criteria for designing the networks needed to identify and link such actors. It requires further development in order to be applicable to agriculture, where research is often location-specific and involves the adaptation of generic knowledge to local conditions. A key question concerns the encounter between location-specific and generic knowledge. This question is addressed by the present project, which will generate new insights on ways to integrate ‘scientific’ with ‘local’ knowledge.

This project will undertake social scientific research on the network of scientific actors working to protect rice from blast. This case concerns a fungal disease caused by a diverse pathogen population. Since rice possesses a diverse range of resistance genes effective against some forms of the pathogen, genomics-based methods of plant breeding, informed by genomic analysis of the fungal population, are needed to produce resistant crops. Location-specific information about pathogen populations in different regions is also vital for the innovation process.

The project will examine the treatment of generic and ‘local’ knowledge at different points of the network, concentrating on communication across the interfaces between different kinds of actor. It will establish how effectively location-specific information about pathogen populations is communicated and will identify institutional factors that help or impede such communication. It will relate such behaviour to the nature of each network, in particular to the characteristics of its component organisations and the processes that take place on the interfaces between them. It will then propose extensions to the innovation systems framework to take account of such experiences.

The Research Idea

I shall conduct social research (using concepts and methods from the social sciences) on the network of actors engaged in agricultural research for poor people in the ‘Third World’. This network includes national and international research institutes; university departments; private firms; farmer groups; as well as policy bodies setting research priorities and influencing the choice of research approach. I shall use the conceptual took known as the Innovation Systems Framework to assess the network’s capacity to grasp scientific opportunities and use them to respond to the needs of poor farmers. I shall concentrate on efforts to control rice blast: feasible approaches include the development of resilient farming systems based on agro-ecological principles, as well as advanced techniques that use fundamental genomic knowledge to create new rice varieties (“molecular breeding”). This focus will make the project feasible and highlight key network characteristics: why some kinds of information are privileged and communicated rapidly while others are ignored, and hence what factors inform the choice of research opportunities to pursue and the characteristics of the solutions that are offered to farmers. In particular, it will show whether the availability of ‘hi-tec’ approaches increases the efficacy of agricultural research, or distracts research attention away from the unglamorous pursuit of simple but effective solutions: genomic knowledge of rice and blast is more advanced than for any other crop–disease system, so this case will reveal how agricultural research activity is likely to change as genomic knowledge advances in other areas.

The Focus

Almost 600 million very poor people live in the ‘Third World’ and rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The agricultural research system provides technologies that help reduce rural poverty, but surely could do so even more effectively if its organisation and working practices were reformed (very few bodies have already optimised everything!). Global rice production is hindered by a plant disease called blast, which typically destroys 10 – 30 per cent of output each year but is increasing in importance as a consequence of climate change. The ways in which the organisation of agricultural research increases or reduces its capacity to respond effectively to blast are likely to indicate general organisational strengths and weaknesses, so findings from this study are likely to reveal ways in which agricultural research could reduce poverty more effectively. In particular, there have been repeated calls to develop scientific understandings of farmer practices so that they can be modified and strengthened rather than being replaced by ‘modern’ solutions. However, there is no published social research on farmer beliefs and practices about blast (apart from their appreciation of blast-resistant varieties). A decade ago, scientists in the Far East developed and popularised resilient farming systems based on agro-ecological principles. Despite their demonstrable success, such work has now ceased, with current responses to blast instead using advanced genomic-based tools. This change of research direction demands explanation, and the social organisation of research is likely to provide one.

Background

The debate on agricultural research for the developing world has concentrated on its outputs (above all the ‘Green Revolution’ technologies) and on what agricultural research institutes do, rather than examining what they are, and how the ways in which they are organised and governed lead to the behaviours observed. One common complaint is that the concerns and priorities of small-scale farmers have been ignored, yet few observers have examined why the organisation of research makes it difficult to respond to this kind of information, while other kinds of information directly influence the research agenda. An exception is my own PhD thesis, which examines efforts to institutionalise participatory research methods within an International Centre. However, at the time it was not possible to deal adequately with the networked nature of agricultural research: private seed firms and some farmer organisations (such as the Colombian coffee-growers’ federation) are now major players.

An important theoretical approach, the ‘Innovation Systems’ framework, was developed in and for OECD countries to understand how certain configurations of actors and institutions are likely to foster competitive technology-based industries. There is some debate as to whether it is applicable to developing countries, or to agriculture anywhere. However, it was used in India by DfID’s Crop Post-Harvest Programme to diagnose problems with the institutional support for agriculture and provided guidance to policy-makers, enabling them to resolve the difficulties they faced. I propose both to use and extend it, developing a robust approach that is applicable to agriculture in developing countries.

Theory & Evidence Base

I propose to use and extend the Innovation Systems framework in order to interpret agricultural innovation as a human activity undertaken by a network of heterogeneous actors, supported and conditioned by a broader institutional framework. Key to this is Latour’s network concept: a means of summing up interactions into a very local, practical locus, so that distant actions, norms and structures are analysed in terms of their local effects. These networks are composed of organisations: for each organisation examined, I shall identify characteristics that either help or hinder the use of different kinds of knowledge from varied informants. These processes will be analysed as they take place across the interfaces between different kinds of actors, so that the findings will apply to innovation systems rather than homogenous organisations.

I will thus describe how innovation systems operate in practice: how they handle the encounter between: (i) scientific knowledge, (ii) relevant knowledge held by local people. I will explore the relationship between the way in which this encounter is managed and the characteristics of the organisations being studied. I will do so by examining (a) the nature of discourse/communication within the system, and (b) how different kinds of relevant information are evaluated and taken into account elsewhere in the system. I will test whether universally valid knowledge is systematically privileged in relation to location-specific knowledge.

Methodology

  1. To explore the interface between farmers (technology users) and researchers, I shall conduct open-ended focus group discussions with groups of farmers. This work will be sub-contracted to Gene Campaign, which already has links with farmer groups and has professional staff able to work under my direction who are fluent in local languages (Telugu and Hindi). These discussions will elicit (a) what they know about blast and what they do to prevent or mitigate blast outbreaks; (b) how they had experienced their contacts with the research system. Results from this exploration will be presented and discussed with scientists from India’s Central Rice Research Institute at the end of my stay in India;
  2. I shall conduct semi-structured interviews with TEN scientists and/or research policy-makers engaged in research related to rice and blast at different points of the process. These interviews will emphasise the ways in which different kinds of relevant knowledge are either used or ignored, and the organisational processes through which takes place. I shall endeavour to speak to people at both ends of a knowledge transfer between institutions. Institutes of interest include CRRI (India); Exeter University; Rothamstead Research; DfID (UK);
  3. I shall use Skype to interview scientists involved in the projects, now discontinued, to build blast-resilient farming systems. Key issues to be explored are the stated reasons and organisational processes for the end of these projects, and the scientists’ opinions as to any other unstated reasons that may have proved decisive.

Output

I shall prepare academic articles for ‘Food Policy’ and ‘Agricultural Systems’ and the India-based Economic and Political Weekly and Asian Biotechnology and Development Review, as well as a more popular article for ‘New Scientist’ and possibly the Commentary section of ‘Nature Biotechnology’.

Workshops will be held in Hyderabad and London, to which scientists and relevant policy-makers, as well as interested social scientists, will be invited. In particular, the Hyderabad workshop will include political actors such as the Knowledge in Civil Society forum in India whose interests include examining the community-level impact of internationally-funded research.

I shall apply for funding for Phase 2, which would permit a more adequate exploration of these issues.

Policy-briefings will also be published on policy web sites such as www.policylibrary.com and http://europa.eu.int/sinapse.

Relevance

This project will draw upon several of the social sciences to develop an inter-disciplinary approach to a problem of the greatest significance. If successful, it will equip policy makers to deploy existing resources more effectively in order to reduce the extent of global hunger. Its anticipated conceptual output is a more general and richer form of the Innovation Systems framework, which is an interdisciplinary tool that enables policy-makers to maximise the practical benefit obtained from resources devoted to applied science.

I have for long been fascinated by these issues; care about their practical significance, and believe that this project could be the gateway to further engagement with them.