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More collaborative research model urged

Input from more stakeholders would mean greater and faster innovation for the agriculture sector.

By Alex Binkley, The Manitoba Cooperator

It’s time for agriculture research to break out of its pipeline approach and look for new ideas wherever it can find them.

That means upending the old model where ‘good’ scientific research basically saw data go in, lab work happen, and eventually a new product come out. Now it’s time for that same research to accept potential users and customers — such as farmers — might have some valuable thoughts to share, according to one academic.

Agriculture research should consider these non-traditional viewpoints as well as consider a variety of end uses for final product or new knowledge, said Sandra Schillo, an assistant professor at Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa during the recent Agriculture Institute of Canada 2016 conference.

A research project “has to be open to inputs throughout the process,” she said during her keynote address “It has to reach both traditional and new markets and generate spinoff benefits.”

Research has shaped modern agriculture in terms of the crop varieties that are grown and the farm practices of producers, she noted. “This doesn’t happen automatically,” she told researchers at the conference. “Think up and down the food chain and all around it for ideas.”

Social benefits

Governments have long supported agriculture research because of the social benefits it has given society, she said. Generally government labs do basic research and the information gleaned from that work is used by university and private researchers to produce other innovations. Government labs should be working to maximize the public good and no one should be excluded from the research or the results.

One change that has to be understood is that a research project isn’t complete just because it generated new information or products. Now the project has to include dissemination of the knowledge gained to farmers and the food industry. As well, technology transfer to private companies can generate even more products.

She showed the delegates a graph of a research system which includes five groups — research organizations, support bodies, markets and consumers, enterprises and intermediary organizations. All play a role in the research projects and the ongoing sharing of its findings. In turn, these participants are all motivated by market forces, technology developments, social triggers and environmental influences.

Complex and changing

She advocates shifting to an ‘open innovation’ approach in recognition of the complex and changing challenges within the agri-sector as it tries to produce more food sustainably with less impact on the environment. The collaboration required to make it effective is well within reach using the Internet and modern communications and allows the project to tap into expertise everywhere, she said.

At the same time, a more open, collaborative research system doesn’t mean the results are free, she added.

“You have to carefully manage the intellectual property flowing from the research,” she said.

Government research must be protected as much as possible to guard against misuse even if it’s openly available to other researchers.

She said the development of a national agriculture research policy undertaken by AIC will encourage informed decision-making and bring more innovation to Canadian agriculture.