25/01/2017 - Article
How can we measure the impact of agricultural research? How can we contribute to research governance in such a way as to maximize its impact in the field, in terms of gains in productivity, environmental quality, efficiency all along the agrifood chain, social relations, etc? These questions were addressed by two projects, ImpresS and Impresa, the results of which were presented, on the initiative of CIRAD, in Brussels on 18 November. The presentation was followed by talks with representatives of three European Commission Directorates General (Research and Innovation, Agriculture and Rural Development, and Development and Rural Cooperation) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). This unprecedented meeting between scientific organizations and donors paved the way for a renewal of the way in which we assess impact, a debate on the place of impact in competitive funding, and a research and agricultural development policy rethink.
Measuring, assessing and understanding the impact of their research on agriculture: this is what prompted the European Impresa consortium, CIRAD, and their partners to embark upon two projects, Impresa and ImpresS. While the projects' fields of study differ – one concerns agriculture in Europe, the other agriculture in the South – they agree on the need for long-term investment, and also for researchers to be involved in the debate on the impact of their research.
Etienne Hainzelin, ImpresS project coordinator at CIRAD, stated in Brussels on 18 November that 10 to 30 years of research investment were needed to ensure an economic, social, environmental, or territorial impact, or an impact on health, adding that 15
years was the minimum period for a given research question: it often corresponds to a cluster of projects that follow on from each other or overlap, with partnerships being created over that period.
This was confirmed by Peter Midmore, Impresa project coordinator at the University of Aberystwyth.
Marc Duponcel, of the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development, said he shared this vision, pointing out that research has to be seen as a long-term investment. It is therefore important to build a suitable policy framework in order to boost the impact of agricultural research, as part of a multi-stakeholder approach. The IFAD representative confirmed the merits of such an approach, while highlighting the difficulty of implementing it, since donors have to account for the efficiency with which their resources are used in terms of impacts directly linked to investment.
The results of ImpresS and Impresa revealed the importance of co-constructing results, within a multi-stakeholder approach, with interactions between researchers and stakeholders throughout the innovation process, and long-term trusting relationships.
The work done by CIRAD within the ImpresS framework also revealed the necessity of interacting with public players and policy-makers, by taking account of the institutional context and the political agenda. It also showed the vital role of stakeholder capacity building, notably through training, in order to generate impact.
Impresa also looked at the links between the public sector and the private sector. The project highlighted the influence of research and innovation in the agrifood industry on agriculture. Peter Midmore stressed the need for strong governance of public agricultural research funding.
ImpresS and Impresa push researchers to switch from a "culture of promises to a "culture of impact". Hans-Joerg Lutzeyer from the Directorate General for Research and Innovation said that researchers must be encouraged to think of their end users.
However, this change in culture will not be possible without the help of the donors who determine the framework for research funding and calls for projects. As the participants, said, current procedures can push project leaders to make big promises.
The aim is therefore to build a framework that fosters the emergence of projects that may have an impact, taking account of their duration. To this end, Etienne Hainzelin added that we have to involve researchers in monitoring those impacts and defining impact scenarios for their research, right from the call for projects stage, by putting them into perspective in the project cluster ecosystem. Monitoring these scenarios during the project, and beyond, would serve to measure impact as activities go on, and to redirect operations if needs be. The participants suggested producing a guide to good practice with a view to boosting impact.
Peter Midmore from Impresa also suggested feeding the European agricultural research information system better, while Marc Duponcel from the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development added that we need a full picture of agricultural research in Europe, which could take the form of an observatory of what is being done in member States and on a European level, which he feels is vital to understand who is doing what and determine the resources invested.
This would make it possible to use European expertise to ensure "science-based agricultural development", according to Bernard Rey, from the Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, who pointed out that thought is currently being given to the financial mechanisms required to boost efficacy and target scientific expertise directly, without being constrained by the procedures of calls for projects, as often happens in scientific circles. He concluded by saying that science had a role to play in drafting development policy.