Research (redesign)

Food as a public research agenda

At this stage, the research agenda and the process of conducting research has significantly shifted in support of research requirements related to sustainability, equity and health promotion, defined by the core conceptual frameworks of this site.  The ratio of public to private research has shifted more to the public and parapublic sectors.  Research that does not clearly support the goals outlined on this site is not funded by the public sector.  Private research is still conducted but more aggressively shaped by public requirements and public funding.  Public scientists will act more as convenors and facilitators of research teams across the public, parapublic and private sectors.  A modest increase in the number of food system scientists in the public and parapublic sectors would be warranted.  Infrastructure for long-term research, whether government facilities, or partnership arrangements with non-governmental actors, is rebuilt and maintained.

A redesign funding mechanism that truly supports sustainable food systems would have the following characteristics:

  1. A mix of competitive grants (scientists compete for funds) and block grants (funds are provided to an administrative unit to be divided among research staff). Existing block grant systems appear to be more suitable for the support of innovative, multidisciplinary, and long-term work because of the current weaknesses of the peer review system (MacRae et al., 1989), but substantial modifications ta the administration of research in institutions would need to be made to make block grants suitable in a sustainable agriculture context.
  2. Many projects must have guaranteed funding for longer periods of time, but this does not imply greater expenditures in comparison to current practices. With participant co-funding and on-farm or on-site trials as key components for the research strategy it would be possible to use equivalent funding levels for much longer periods of time.
  3. Project evaluation periods should be consistent with the periods in which significant results can be expected. In rotation studies this may be every five years. The evaluation process should be a participatory one, including self-appraisals by the scientists involved and evaluations from the non-scientist co-participants in the study.
  4. Non-scientists must be involved in the evaluation of research proposals at their level of competence. This could involve farmers, business people and policy makers, depending on the project submitted.
  5. Funding agency staff should have a discretionary budget that permits them to take chances on projects that appear to be particularly innovative, but may not return any useful results.
  6. Funding agency staff should play a facilitative rather than strictly administrative or evaluative role. Such a change permits them to be full partners in the development and implementation of a project.  This is critical because the current risk aversion displayed by funding agencies, codified in excessively onerous proposal development and back end financial accounting, is stifling innovation.