The Purpose of Research: Understanding or Winning?

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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February 13, 2004: There's talk in Ontario about changing our approach to the research that drives change in our food system. Stakeholder input on strategic research options is being sought by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario.

The options under consideration hint at major long-term changes:

  1. Focusing research on two outcomes: improved health and enhanced competitiveness;
  2. Structuring research in value chains. Two chains -- primary production systems and the bio-economy - to enhance competitiveness and three value chains -- food, public health and environment - to improve health;
  3. An emphasis on collaboration among researchers and building large interdisciplinary teams for coordination and integration of research; and
  4. Ensuring that research leads to innovation.

I'm encouraged but also cautious.

It is urgent that scientists come out of their silos - out of their narrow scientific specialties. One cow with mad cow disease is not just a matter of understanding prions - those folded over proteins that result in sponge-like brains - it's also about markets and trade policy and what it takes to maintain consumer confidence in the food system. A move towards collaboration, interdisciplinary teams, coordination and integration is a big plus.

Linking research to innovation is the greater challenge. Consider organic agriculture -- one of the significant innovations in the food system of the past quarter century - this innovation developed on farms, in the marketplace and as a consumer preferences long before science sat up and took notice. It emerged almost in spite of the research establishment. While science can lead to innovation, it is just as important that science gets on side with innovations driven by farmers, markets and consumer preferences. A research strategy that assumes that science and innovation have a cause-and-effect relationship - with science needing to come first -- will continue to fail us. Even today, our science is ignoring the next major innovation already emerging in food markets and consumer preferences - the re-localization of food.

The focus on competitiveness as primary outcome is troubling. At a simple level, the new strategy's emphasis on competitiveness -- generally understood as global competitiveness -- risks squandering our research dollars on a continuation of the misguided effort to industrialize Ontario agriculture and make it the lowest cost producer of bulk commodities. There is no long-term economic sustainability nor entrepreneurial satisfaction in this treadmill to ever lower prices. At a deeper level, science has a more noble purpose than winning marketers. Science can get at complexity and help us understand the creation of which we are a part.

It is more important to understand how the world works than to win.


For more information on the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario's development of strategic research options, visit: http://www.gov.on.ca/OMAF/english/research/ario/index.html.



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