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Orientating and Keeping Scientific Research for Development on Track

Published: 2014-10-13

Dr Richard Hall of IFS was invited by Tropentag 2014 to deliver a keynote address. He talked about, amongst other related issues, how applied researchers might interact with relevant stakeholders to maximise the chances of their research generating useful outcomes.

Dr Richard Hall, Programme Coordinator for Forest Resources and Crop Science at IFS,  recently attended the Tropentag 2014 Conference on Tropical and Subtropical Agricultural and Natural Resource Management (held at Czech University of Life Sciences Prague), this year’s theme being Bridging the gap between increasing knowledge and decreasing resources.

This conference, jointly organised by the universities of Bonn, Göttingen, Hohenheim, Kassel-Witzenhausen, Hamburg, ETH Zurich (Switzerland), Czech University of Life Sciences Prague (Czech Republic), as well as by the Council for Tropical and Subtropical Research (ATSAF e.V) in co-operation with the GIZ Advisory Service on Agricultural Research for Development (BEAF), drew together almost 700 delegates from Europe and tropical countries whose contributions covered a wide variety of tropical agriculture-related themes.

Dr Richard Hall at Tropentag 2014Dr Hall’s keynote address, entitled Orientating and Keeping Scientific Research for Development on Track is well summarised by the conference student reporter, Pin Pravalprukskul (with some additions in italics  provided by Richard Hall):

 

Beyond the Conference: Research for Real Impact

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 08:27 — Pin Pravalprukskul

Participants of Tropentag 2014, I hope you feel accomplished. With the wealth of excellent and groundbreaking work presented this year, it looks like we’re indeed one step forward in “bridging the gap between increasing knowledge and decreasing resources”. As we settle back in our home universities and institutes to catch up on work and resume our routines, it’s also perhaps a good time to reflect on what happens next. Conferences are great, but why end at the conference?

I found Dr. Richard Hall’s plenary speech, “Orienting and Keeping Scientific Research for Development On Track”, a timely reminder of what it is we conduct research for. Even at conferences such as Tropentag, where researchers address urgent issues of climate change and food security, “applied research” doesn’t necessarily translate to real change on the ground. Scientists don’t have the power or resources to implement policies, or to organise extension programs for farmers – that’s someone else’s responsibility.

Or so we argue.

Open-access for success
Dr. Hall is working to equip researchers with tools for action. As a Scientific Programme Coordinator for the International Foundation for Science, he helps scientists design, conduct and monitor research projects for tangible impact, and through an ACP/EU-supported project, he has, with partners, organised multi-stakeholder platforms in Africa to identify researchable issues to find solutions for constraints and bottlecks in value chains of under-utilised crops. One tool he proposed which could be used in the future  is the multi-stakeholder online platform, which connects researchers with the people most likely to make use of the results.

Involving stakeholders in a research project, especially when it’s cross-boundary and multi-disciplinary, can sound like a researcher’s nightmare. Limited budgets and time tend not to cater to extra meetings, proposals and revisions from multiple sides. But Dr. Hall comments that it’s essential to consult stakeholders from the beginning to maximise the chances that the final results directly target the problem at hand. Transparent monitoring and evaluation can burden a project’s resources, but such processes can be streamlined and in the end it makes sure that the research doesn’t go to waste.

The next generation of action researchers
When talking about creating change, it would be remiss to ignore the contribution of youth. Dr. Hall alluded to young researchers’ “missionary zeal to change the world”, which is needed more than ever with today’s daunting challenges. Nowhere was this drive more apparent than in the hallways and auditoriums at Tropentag, where a significant proportion of the presenters were graduate students.

Dr. Hall cautioned that now is a “critical time to support them… otherwise they become lost to science.” The IFS plays a role by supporting and advising PhD and Master’s students from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean who are embarking on their research careers. Tropentag itself traditionally gives particular attention to introducing young scientists to the workings of the research community. The fervent discussions I observed in some sessions, and the constructive criticism I received for my own work, left an impression on me of the community’s collective dedication to mentoring and peer-review.

Role of Reserachers?
Tropentag may be wrapped up, but our work is nowhere near done. As researchers, it is frighteningly easy to get lost in the drive to do good science that sometimes we forget that it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – end at the conference presentation or the published journal article. Dr. Hall demonstrated that we don’t have to wait for the policy makers, or hope that someone else will take our advice. We can make sure that our work reaches the hands that matter, whether by taking the extra step to reach out to stakeholders, or by mentoring budding action researchers.

So, participants of Tropentag 2014, I’d like to leave you a challenge: What is one step you can take today to make sure that your research makes the difference it has the potential to make?

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