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.

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