Date released
21 August 2019

by Sarina Macfadyen, Associate Research Program Manager for Farming Systems Analysis at ACIAR.

How do agricultural researchers ensure their hard work translates into real-world outcomes?

Researchers are now more than ever encouraged to argue the case for how their scientific endeavours will lead to impact in the real world. For agricultural researchers’ impact may mean the adoption of certain machinery, the use of improved seeds, or the regular use of more sustainable practices by farmers—in simple terms, changing the way things are done daily. Increasingly we want to see change at the local level but also use research findings to catalyse transformational changes at much larger scales.

But how can scientists really achieve this?

Scientists are like the few unfortunate dinosaurs who could see the meteor on its way to earth and knew it would change the planet forever, and yet could do nothing to alter its speed, trajectory, or location of eventual impact. They had the knowledge, but with limited ability to act. In this case the outcome was catastrophic for the dinosaurs, however often we are working with agricultural innovations that may improve things (i.e. we want them to be adopted quickly and by lots of people).

But waiting around for the impact is no less frustrating for scientists. A recent report from Dr Lauren Rickards on the gradual demise of agricultural extension at the same time as increased demand for greater impacts from agricultural research, got me thinking about what scientists can do to create the impacts from their work that are now wanted. She said:

It is increasingly clear that impact does not flow automatically from research, nor are most researchers or research institutions equipped to successfully generate it alone or perform the work it requires.

Below I have summarised a few ideas about approaches that agricultural scientists can use to be more engaged in the processes that take place after their work leaves the research sphere. I also provide some suggestions for things scientists could be doing while they “wait” for impacts that often take 10 years plus to materialise.

Laying more than one impact pathway

We often ask scientists to describe the potential impact pathways for their research outputs at the project proposal stage. So, if all their experiments, surveys, field trials, modelling, laboratory work, and glasshouse studies turn out to be successful how will this new knowledge be packaged and given to others to communicate and extend to the ultimate end-users.

In the past agricultural extension staff would have been an important part of an agricultural scientist’s impact pathway, and in some parts of the world, this formal model of knowledge transfer to farmers still exists. However, scientists nowadays need to think more laterally about who could use the new knowledge they generate, and in some cases describe multiple impact pathways.

This might involve policymakers, agricultural department staff, input sellers, millers and food processors, machinery businesses, other NGOs and development partners. For this to work research institutions need to acknowledge the limits of their capabilities and support their scientists to work collaboratively with staff in non-research organisations.

Not holding onto new knowledge and technology too long

It is unhelpful for scientists to hold onto new knowledge and technological innovations too long. The reason for this habit is logical. Scientists want to ensure their findings are robust. They want to know that the same result from an intervention will be achieved by many farmers, no matter what the context or seasonal conditions. However, this can be taken too far, and researchers with limited resources will never be able to test every combination of environment by intervention. This attitude also ignores the role of farmers as experimental researchers on their own land. A farmer does not need robust findings that work in every context, they only need to get it to work in their context.

Therefore, it is important that scientists engage end-users early, rather than keeping them at arm's length until they have all the answers. I would argue that in some cases the benefits gained from further research are small in comparison to the time it takes. This puts the responsibility back on scientists to ask themselves “do we need more information or do we have enough knowledge to act in a responsible way now?"

Building new relationships during the life of a project

Scientists are very good at developing new collaborations with other scientists. However, developing relationships with other stakeholders often takes time. The pattern is for these conversations to take place in the last year of a project when scientists have something to show for their endeavours. In projects where development partners, policymakers, farmers associations, machinery providers, and other stakeholders were engaged early the researchers had the time to build these relationships. We have no way to measure the impact of this process, it is just an anecdotal observation. This does not need to be a formal partnership but can be ad hoc and require little time. A regular phone call, inviting stakeholders to annual project meetings, sending them fact sheets or newsletters. These activities build the foundation for when the time comes for asking them to formally collaborate in a development phase.

Scientific impact while you wait

Activities that generate scientific impact are well within the sphere of influence for scientists and are something that scientists can focus on whilst “waiting” (although see below) for other impacts to be realised. The most commonly instructed way to have science impact is to publish papers in scientific journals, and I don’t intend to argue this point (not here anyway). Other scientists will hopefully read your paper and perhaps change the way they think about the problems they are facing.

But there are other ways to build scientific impact.

Convening workshops that bring scientists together, training and hosting PhD students and mid-career scientists in laboratories, creating networks of researchers who can easily troubleshoot issues, can all be incredibly influential. Some of these activities fall under the broad banner of “capacity development”, but their much subtler impact is to change the way scientists solve problems. It acknowledges that some problems will not be solved by solitary contemplation, but by discussion and exposure to new approaches and ideas.

These activities should take place both inside and outside the life of a project, but for this to happen research institutions need to recognise the time these activities take. Rather than being a drain on research output they serve to build scientific impact.

The scientist as an investor in development activities

Throughout this article, I have worked on the assumption that most (all) scientists want real-world impact from their research activities and are trying to address some significant global challenges around natural resource management, climate change, food security, and poverty reduction. At the same time, scientists must navigate an increasingly competitive academic world as a career, where attributing impacts back to their research is increasingly demanded.

I like to think of scientists as an investor in terms of the knowledge (rather than money) they contribute to starting development activities. Their role in this context is as a person who can benefit both personally and professionally from seeing the impact of their research.

Unlike the dinosaurs, they are not passive observers but can play an active role in impact pathways if given the opportunity to do so.