Social scientists can improve the impact of agricultural research

maheshAs one of the panelists, I attended a discussion on “Strengthening Social Science and Policy Research” hosted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s South Asia Office and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at the 24th Annual AERA Conference held at the ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Izatnagar (India) on 17 December 2016.

This event brought to mind an interesting document called “Social Scientists in Agricultural Research: Lessons from the Mantaro Valley Project, Peru.” For many, this now might be considered old research. Nevertheless, it makes an important point about the significant role that social scientists play in agricultural research and development.

From 1977 to 1980, the International Potato Center (CIP) implemented an interdisciplinary farm-level research program in the Mantaro Valley of highland Peru. Unlike many other agricultural research projects, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, plant physiologists, agronomists, pathologists, and entomologists were involved in this project. The three main objectives of the program were to (1) sensitize CIP and national-program scientists to the value of on-farm research, (2) develop and field test procedures for on-farm research with potatoes, and (3) train national program personnel in the use of on-farm research techniques.

The experience from the Mantaro Valley project confirmed that the contributions of social scientists to interdisciplinary teams were no less important than those of biological scientists. Yet even after nearly 4 decades, the lessons from this important project have not been well noted. It is no wonder that social scientists are still stressing that they can and should contribute more meaningfully towards making biological research more relevant to societal needs.

It is worth noting that social science professional associations, especially those related to agricultural economics and agricultural extension education, are now more frequently discussing the importance of social science in biological research. I attended last year a brainstorming session on the “Role of Social Science in the National Agricultural Research System (NARS)” organized by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in India on 23 May 2015. Over 25 leading experts in different social sciences participated in this brainstorming session and various discussions took place regarding the lack of clarity on the potential role of social scientists in the national agricultural research system as well as the lack of critical mass in India.

I also attended another brainstorming session on “Strengthening Agricultural Extension Research and Education” where the role of agricultural extension education in agricultural development was discussed, underscoring the need to strengthen the discipline by enhancing core competencies of agricultural extension professionals in emerging areas. These efforts indicate a growing realization that social sciences can and should improve the quality of biological research by making research more relevant to the needs of society.

Mistakes can be made if biological research does not involve social scientists

Some technologies found promising by biological scientists under laboratory conditions, often miserably fail in field situations. For instance, the urea treatment of straw was highly extolled by animal nutrition specialists but was not adopted by farmers across the world. It was not generally used by the farmers even in villages where it was intensively promoted by researchers and extension workers. Farmers found the treatment too technical and cumbersome to follow. Instead, farmers found cultivation of green fodder more worthwhile since they could mix green fodder with the straws/residues. Urea treatment is perhaps a classic case of mismatch between the perceived usability and appropriateness at the level of scientists, extension workers and farmers.

Yet, it is still being tried and promoted in many parts of the world, including India, with time, resources and money being spent on something that is not acceptable to farmers for various reasons. Similarly, azolla as animal feed failed in South East Asian countries but is still being promoted currently in a big way in India. Field experiences suggested that even after using azolla, a good yield was only observed for the initial 2 to 3 months. After that, the azolla started drying off. In addition, the required change of water and soil every 5 months was considered difficult by farmers, especially since this change did not achieve good azolla yields. Another issue was that animals did not accept azolla as a sole feed and it needed to be mixed with concentrates or jaggery water.

All in all, its high moisture content and short shelf-life as well as the transportation and storage issues make azolla a difficult option. The last example is hydroponic fodder, which is the current craze in many parts of India and is being seen as miraculous option for livestock in India’s drylands.. Although hydroponic forage has had great appeal to those who wish to be self-sufficient in feed supply, the yield, quality, and costs of this system appear not to be favorable.

When all these technologies are considered promising by biological scientists, especially those who researched and developed them, social scientists could and should intervene to help generate evidence through field research to establish the socio-economic and operational feasibility of these technologies under field conditions. This could save on a lot of time, money and resources being wasted in the development of technologies that may be impractical under field conditions.

Any research endeavour is ultimately meant to serve society one way or another. Social scientists are close to society and know well societal needs, aspirations and field realities. Thus, social scientists can add value to biological research if they are involved in agricultural research projects as partners in multidisciplinary teams. Moreover, social scientists can contribute significantly to feedback and impact assessments, which are important domains of any research outcome.

Social scientists study the nature, measurement and analysis of people’s needs and aspirations so that science can continuously remain relevant and contribute to the welfare of mankind. They can help organize research, education and training around societal problems in biological science research by improving the focus, design, implementation, evaluation and demonstration of evidence of impact.

The scope of social sciences has been defined at national and international levels, to inter alia include economics, sociology, political science, geography, philosophy, psychology, anthropology including agricultural extension education and statistics. If these disciplines work in isolation and without collaborating with biological scientists, their impact would be negligible in solving problems societies face currently or likely to face in future. In addition according to Dr. Pramod K. Joshi, IFPRI’s Asia Director, social scientists can significantly enhance their contributions if they improve their own capacities by becoming better skilled with tools and methodologies of social research.

The CGIAR centers in general, and IFPRI and IRRI in particular, have been making efforts to enhance the role of social sciences in agricultural research by taking up activities including organizing workshops, seminars, symposiums and panel discussions. It is expected that in coming years, these efforts will pay off. These international institutions can do a lot to improve the capacities of social scientists in developing countries through workshops and trainings at different locations.

At the 24th Annual AERA conference, social scientists like Dr. Sam Mohanty travelled all the way from Manila (the Philippines) to address social scientists at the small town of Bareilly (northern India). He highlighted how IRRI had created an excellent work environment at the Social Sciences Division to proactively work with multi-disciplinary teams of researchers at various locations in different countries including India. Dr. Pramod K Joshi also gave a presentation about IFPRI’s initiatives to strengthen the capacities of social scientists by improving their skills with tools and methods of social research. Many participants of conference were impressed with Dr. Prabhu Pingali’s talk on “Redirecting Agriculture and Food Policy towards Nutrition Security.” He stressed that the time had come to realize the need for countries to be nutrition secure and pointed to the impact of ignoring nutrition-sensitive agriculture.

At the conference’s inauguration, Dr. R. B. Singh highlighted that social scientists can and should be involved in setting the research agenda by helping prioritize agricultural problems to be solved by the biological scientists.

Attending this conference, especially as a panelist on “Strengthening Social Science and Policy Research” discussion, was a gratifying experience. I am optimistic that social scientists will be increasingly involved in agricultural research in years to come!

GFAR is playing an important role

The work the Global Forum for Agricultural Research (GFAR)’s is a potential game changer, especially since it is a networked organization, made up of over 400 partners working together, through collective advocacy and actions. Partners in GFAR are working to make agri-food research and innovation more effective, responsive and equitable, towards achieving Sustainable Development outcomes.

From this strategic position, GFAR is strongly promoting the role of social sciences in biological research projects through its multiple activities including its social media outreach. GFAR is further strengthening its network by expanding and helping shape the research agenda of research institutions around the world by promoting the inclusion of social scientists in research programmes and projects.

ChanderGuest blog post by Mahesh Chander (drmahesh.chander(at)gmail.com), Head, Division of Extension Education, ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute

The views expressed are personal, and cannot be attributed to ICAR or GFAR.

Photo credits: Dr Mahesh Chander


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