October 24, 2011

Research proposal writing: topic and methods

Photo by me. I like the T-shirt of the boy on the right: "PhD: Philosophy of Denim."

As you've likely realized, I am intently focused on the impacts of climate change on agriculture. But not in a way that most other scientists are. They want to quantify, predict, assess, and project. I want to tell a human story about how scientists, policy-makers, farmers, and the people in between, imagine their future. This is why I became a social scientist rather than a biochemist.

I'm running into a bit of a conceptual roadblock, which is that not many other scholars take a "human perspective" towards agricultural research systems. There is a lot written in economics and policy, but I don't have, nor necessarily desire, an economics background. I read a lot of economics, because economists like to write about things like agricultural innovation. My disciplinary trajectory, however, is currently inclined towards Science and Technology Studies, political ecology, and some ("enlightened") science policy. I end up drawing from a medley of sociology, history, anthropology, geography, and environmental studies; picking and choosing relevant theories, methods, and similar case studies that I can base my research on. 

On one hand, my unique (inter)disciplinary perspective is something that I hope gives me special insights to my research, as well as contributing something original to the field of literature; on the other, sometimes it feels a bit lonely! I have a great set of advisors and colleagues, but I'm feeling like I want to express something really badly, but can't quite come up with the words. Writing my research proposal has been eternally frustrating because of this.

I know that the work I'm putting in now it really important to the rest of my career. I have a steep learning curve to get over, but luckily I'm equipped with a pretty good brain to help me out :)

In other agriculture related blogs, check out Ed Carr's post on agricultural productivity, and a response by Nathan Yaffe.

October 18, 2011

Boserup vs. Malthus: Hope or despair?

In contrast to the eternal pessimism of Thomas Malthus, Ester Boserup was a 20th century social scientist who offered a more hopeful view of the future, even in the midst of a neo-Malthusian resurgence. Whereas Malthus predicted catastrophe from overpopulation outstripping food production, Boserup came up with her theory of induced intensification. This states that under pressure for more production, humans will develop new technologies that allow them to grow more crops on the same amount of land. See my previous post on Malthus and agricultural technology for more background.

One of my ASU professors, Billie Turner, tested the Boserup vs. Malthus hypotheses in a historical study of agricultural change in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has long been viewed as a Malthusian crisis in waiting, given its extreme land pressures and impoverished agrarian sector. Yet, the country’s small-holders in fact increased agricultural production significantly from 1950 to 1986 through the intensification process, and the percentage of the population below the poverty line decreased, according to some sources. (Turner and Ali, 1996)
What they found is that neither model worked exactly well- on one hand, technology has kept up with population, and on the other, just barely. But innovations such as tube well irrigation, high yielding varieties, and other technologies have meant that Bangladesh is largely self-sufficient in food production.

Boserup's theory is still very much relevant to agriculture today. One of my research questions (broadly) is whether technological change can keep up with climate change and its impacts on agriculture? It's a different "demand" than population, but an important one. Also, Boserup helped pioneer gender studies of agriculture (see Billie Turner's homage to Boserup here), pointing out that traditional Western models of agricultural development ignored women's role in farming. This has been a persistant problem with agricultural development. So yay for Ester Boserup, an inspiration to me and many others!

October 14, 2011

October updates

This is, I hope, the craziest month of my semester. Working on my NSF proposal, my prospectus, and putting together my committee (mission accomplished!). I am running to meet with my advisor in a few minutes, but I don't want to neglect this blog.

In the meantime, enjoy why don't you stop by Praj's blog to muse on some climate change science and policy goodness.

Two recent posts:
Related, my previous post on climate change communication and politics.

Or check out what's been up at my other group blog, Her Story of Science.

October 8, 2011

Genetically modified foods and public engagement

A great blog you should check out this weekend is Jack Stilgoe's "Responsible Innovation." My grad colleagues and I recently enjoyed discussing his "'How' technologies and 'Why' technologies." An excerpt:
Some emerging technologies are defined by how they do things. So called ‘platform-technologies’ or ‘enabling technologies’ like synthetic biology provide new ways of doing a whole lot of different stuff.... Geoengineering, on the other hand, is defined by its intentions (I wrote about this here). Its target is a future in which we are able to influence the climate. This doesn’t mean that geoengineering researchers desire this future. Many of them would despise such a prospect. But they are interested in it. So while nano and syn bio are defined by the how, geo is defined by its why. This invites different sorts of governance and difference sorts of public engagement.
But his recent post that really intrigued me was an interview with Stilgoe on engaging the public in dialogues about genetically modified (GM) foods. Stilgoe discusses how going into a public dialogue about GM foods is different than with a more politically-neutral, or less entrenched, topic (see my previous post on GM and risk; also see my post on public dialogues). He also talks about "upstream engagement," which means involving the public in science throughout the research process, rather than just dealing with the possible consequences of the results. On engaging with stakeholders:
[Q:] The report speaks of engagement with both stakeholders and the public. In the case of GM, what do you perceive to be the difference, and do we need a different approach for each? 
[Stilgoe:] Absolutely we need a different approach for each. When you are engaging upstream, everyone is a potential stakeholder; yet at the same time there are no obvious direct stakeholders because there isn’t anything yet for people to have a stake in, except researchers and the people who govern that research. In a downstream discussion like GM, there are clearly established stakeholders: farmers, regulators, politicians, interest groups, supermarkets, and animal feed companies who all need to find a way to thrash things out in a fairly old fashioned way. I think that confusing this activity with public engagement is unhelpful and puts far too large a burden on public engagement. 
I think there’s another important set of lessons that need to be learnt which we didn’t cover in the report, particularly about how to engage with stakeholders. These more controversial issues involve direct action, lobbying and engagement in ‘uninvited spaces’ that government is not controlling and is less comfortable with. With an issue such as GM, working out mechanisms for this form of engagement may be more important than convening a formal public dialogue.
Really interesting stuff to think about! Have a good weekend!

October 3, 2011

Defining my research question Part II

My big project of this semester is writing my prospectus, which is a full-length research proposal that I will later present and defend in front of my committee. I'm also working on my NSF GRFP proposal, which I got an honorable mention for last year and am really working on right now. So I'm working on the "big picture" prospectus, and then cramming it all into a 2-page (with detailed methodology, of course) research proposal for the NSF. Today I gave a presentation about my research, and was highly encouraged to look not only at public research organizations, but private as well. They looked at my figure (above) and asked the glaring question: where would a company like Monsanto be? I think we're onto something, so here goes...

How do crop varieties that are developed for short-term weather variability become promoted as a long-term climate adaptation strategy? What is the role of, and interaction between, international public and private research organizations in developing and promoting these varieties?

Motivating context
My research question revolves specifically around technological innovations in plant genetics, which are often promoted as a solution to climate change adaptation in agriculture. Drought-resistant, flood-tolerant, salt-tolerant, and heat-tolerant varieties can improve plant responses to weather variability, which is expected to increase under climate change. My research will examine how climate change is addressed in plant genetic research in the agricultural innovation system, and some of the farm-level implications of these technologies.

‘Agricultural innovation systems’ are typically viewed as the research pipeline from public international, to national, to local research and extension systems. The international research centers provide a centralized hub of knowledge production and, critically, innovations in plant genetics. Plant genetic improvement—such as “modern” (high-yielding) crop varieties, hybrids, and transgenics—has guided agricultural innovation systems over the past century. This concept has captured the imagination of scientists, policy-makers, and the public alike since the Green Revolution.

However, today’s agricultural innovation system is much more complex than the linear research pipeline. Farmers now participate in plant breeding research, and non-governmental organizations and private seed companies work in parallel with the public, Green Revolution-style research and extension infrastructure. Notably, the introduction of patents and intellectual property rights on genes and plant varieties frustrates the public-good-oriented public agricultural research, while providing an economic incentive for private agricultural research. The result is not a bifurcation of research goals, but rather a collaboration of public, private, and other agricultural organizations woven together in a “triple-helix” model of innovation, rather than the linear model. For example, this article shows the interactions between public and private research and funding:
Monsanto and BASF, for instance, are working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and national agricultural research programs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa to develop drought-tolerant corn. The program is supported by a $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In March this year, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation announced that Monsanto and BASF have agreed to donate royalty-free drought-tolerant transgenes to the African researchers.
Innovation theory
The Hayami-Ruttan “Induced Innovation Hypothesis” seeks to explain how “supply” and “demand” factors influence the development of new agriculturally technologies. On the “supply” side is scientific agricultural research. On the “demand” side is farmers’ willingness to adopt new innovations. “Climate,” and other environmental forces, also affects the “demands” of agriculture, imposing new conditions that limit or provide opportunities for innovations. Can Hayami-Ruttan’s hypothesis provide insight into where we expect innovations to happen in the research pipeline, in light of the new organizational and institutional arrangements?

So what?
We imagine futures based on current technologies and past trajectories, thus certain innovations get “locked-in” and others “locked-out” of research and development. While climate is a relevant variable in the future of agriculture, it is not the only variable, especially in light of farmer livelihoods and the complexities of climate change adaptation and the overall resilience of agro-ecological systems. How does climate change influence farmers’ adoption of new crops, and facilitate or hamper longer-term climate adaptation strategies?

Further reading:
Parayil, G. (2003). Mapping technological trajectories of the Green Revolution and the Gene Revolution from modernization to globalization. Research Policy, 32, 971-990.