Day One, morning: Technological and institutional challenges

Climate & Natural resources16 Jun 2009Dominic Glover

The Science Forum 2009 is now well and truly under way. After opening remarks by the chair of the CGIAR Science Council, Rudy Rabbinge, among others, the conference is kicked off by several agenda-setting keynote speeches.

First up is Professor Martin Kropff, Rector of the host institution, Wageningen University. Kropff takes full advantage of his platform to advertise his university, speaking with practised fluency about its capabilities, mission and current reorganisation into a university that thinks seriously about integrating knowledge and linking it with practice.

Kropff tells the story of the university’s recent transformation as one of pioneering and successful institutional change. He gives the impression that we are already on the right path towards the priorities of doubling food production and doubling eco-efficiency, within the framework of a new ‘bio-based economy’. But do we really know where we are going and how to get there? Kropff ends by pointing out that complex problems require complex solutions; is his ‘new’ university equipped to deliver those complex solutions?

Professor Sir Gordon Conway, chief science advisor to the UK development ministry, DFID, is another speaker who believes that the biggest sustainability challenges – and the corresponding research priorities – are clear. He identifies three key areas for achieving a ‘doubly green revolution’: biophysical inputs; ecological and agronomic technologies; and ‘building sustainability into the seed’, through approaches including genetic modification. His check-list of R&D priorities leaves me wondering how we will know that the answers we produce will be the right ones, this time around. What are the institutional frameworks and processes we will need to create the new knowledge and technologies we need? How does Conway’s list of technical priorities intersect with the partnership theme of this conference?

Professor Bill Clark of Harvard University focuses precisely on those issues in his lucid and insightful presentation that follows. How do we create knowledge networks that have both the capacity and the intention to deliver knowledge that will be applied for sustainable development? Clark delivers a powerful critique of the linear model of innovation (and implicitly also of the design of this conference). He invokes the spirit of Louis Pasteur to argue that the CGIAR needs to follow a model of ‘use-inspired basic research’ that will bridge the worlds of fundamental science and real-world practice.

This will involve some major institutional and managerial challenges, including managing the simple human tensions between the kinds of people who love working on specific issues in basic research and those who passionately want to address particular problems in specific real-world locations. This means bridging different cultures and doing a lot of ‘boundary work’ to bring people and their perspectives together.

Fascinatingly, Clark explains that the need for flexibility in the face of shocks and surprises will require institutions to foster experimentation, which means embracing error and being transparent about failure, rather than trying to hide it. Clark points out that we should be asking ‘what should be the optimal failure rate for CG projects? It could not possibly be zero!’

The final speaker before lunch is Deborah Delmer of the US National Academies of Science. Her presentation represents a sharp change of direction as she invites us to consider the new technological frontiers opening up and speculate about where and how they might be applicable and useful. The scientific frontier is indeed fascinating, but is this the ‘use-inspired basic research’ that Clark has called for? But there is an appreciable sharpening of interest in the audience when Delmer announces a new funding stream to explore some of these technological possibilities. I’ll try and get the details and post a link here later.

I’ll be back later with some more reflections. Meanwhile, please leave your comments and reflections below.