Research and technology Knowledge

Updated April 1998

Special: Managing Agricultural Research

Overview


Cover page | Overview | The manual | Orientation | Case studies | Course content | Training | Programme planning | Ordering the manual

IN ALL OF THE FIELDS OF SCIENCE, there is none that is more basic to the needs of humanity than agricultural research. Some have suggested that "agricultural research is the oldest form of organized research in the world". While this may or may not be so, individuals were making systematic attempts to apply scientific knowledge to improvement of agriculture by the middle of the eighteenth century.

By the middle of the 19th century, organized agricultural research was taking place in institutions such the Agricultural Chemistry Association of Scotland, and the Agricultural Experiment Station, Möckern, Saxony. During the first half of the twentieth century, most industrialized nations developed extensive national systems for agricultural technology development, which received increased attention and resources following the Second World War. The practical benefits that accrue to society through systematic support of creation and use of scientific knowledge had been demonstrated convincingly to the world's leaders and to much of the general populace of industrialized societies. This belief that an investment in research would result in generous future returns was, and probably still is today, based largely on personal experience and observation. However, starting with Griliches' pioneering work in 1958, there has been a steady accumulation of economic analysis pointing to very beneficial returns from investments in agricultural research.

Prior to independence, agricultural research in many economies was largely focused on crops of economic significance for the colonial powers. The research institutions and experiment stations that emerged usually focused on plantation crops, and were staffed by expatriate scientists. Following independence, it was normal for governments to initiate research on improving agriculture to attain food self-sufficiency. This transition - from colonial to national agricultural research systems (NARS) - often started with fairly good research facilities and equipment, and some technicians. It was rare, however, to find a national who had been trained and nurtured to the level of a scientist, and rarer still to find such a person with managerial experience.

Still, at that time, the exhilaration of independence, the excitement associated with a new world organization that would maintain peace and focus resources on the betterment of mankind, and the awareness that science had and would further revolutionize the world, were all factors that made it hard to be pessimistic. It was in this environment that new NARS began to be formed and moulded in the developing countries, in parallel with similar scientific structures in other fields, such as industry and medicine. In industrialized nations, the scale of research operations had been changed completely by the end of the Second World War. Science had moved dramatically to the centre of the stage. Following the War, there was, to be sure, a change in focus, but not in the magnitude of the support. Science would lead to rapid development and agricultural research was riding the wave of optimism.

In developing economies, the most pressing problem was to produce adequate supplies of food. The world responded by creating the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the first article of whose Constitution states:

"The Organization shall promote and, where appropriate, shall recommend national and international action with respect to scientific, technological, social and economic research relating to nutrition, food and agriculture"
Developing economy governments rose to the challenge by setting up new institutions and expanding existing ones. In almost all countries, agricultural research was a favoured sector. The problems of hunger and malnutrition, it was expected, would fall to the march of science.

Forty years later there are still famines, and children go to bed hungry over much of the world. Malnutrition still saps the energy and mental vitality of a significant portion of the world's population. The FAO 1992-97 Medium-term Plan notes:

" ... by the end of the 1990s, there will be over one thousand million more people to feed than at the beginning of the decade. In addition, unless there are unprecedented shifts in income distribution, both from the North to the South and from the rich to poor within the South, the 500 to 1 000 million people who are currently underfed largely because they are too poor to buy sufficient food, will continue to go hungry."
What went wrong? Why did these new agricultural research organizations and resources not meet the expectations?

In retrospect, it can be said that the problems were much more complex than originally envisioned. Some would contend that scientific skills may have even been inadequate. Management skills obviously were not adequate, and hence a constraint.

During the 18th century, agricultural research was characterized by gifted individuals working on their own initiative, establishing and recording unrelated findings which had little impact on agriculture. A management innovation occurred in the nineteenth century, when learned farmers began to form societies with the objective of defining and solving their problems. Interacting with interested chemists, these societies took the initiative in setting up laboratories and field experiments. Agricultural science began to grow and develop in a systematic fashion, mirrored by improved farming methods and practices.

Looking back, the major questions addressed seemed to have concerned the nature and structure of the new organizations, the setting of priorities, the proper source of support, the relationship of research to the farmer, the relative emphasis to be placed on research and diffusion of research results, the degree of appropriate autonomy for the research organization, and other issues of management. It was only through effectively dealing with these management issues in industrialized economies that agricultural research was able to grow and lead agricultural development into the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, as noted earlier, agricultural research in developing economies moved into the same period with inadequate scientific skills and even fewer management skills.

The two very different situations in developing and developed nations both had a very similar procedural obstacle in the management of research organizations, namely:

"The management of the research organization, at all its levels, is, in most cases, in the hands of veteran agricultural research workers who have risen from the ranks. This is as it should be. However, here we have people who, by training and inclination, have usually been conditioned to averseness to administration in all its manifestations. They are then made responsible for managerial activities in an extremely complex field, for which they have had little or no training whatsoever and for which their only qualifications are their individual character traits and standing with their research colleagues. Administrative understanding is usually incidental and rarely present." (Arnon, I. 1968. Organization and Administration of Agricultural Research. Amsterdam: Elsevier)
This occurs in both industrialized and developing economies, but with two significant differences.

First, in the hundred or so years that management has been a concern to agricultural research managers in the industrialized societies, a fair amount of management knowledge, expertise and capability has been generated and passed down from generation to generation. A new researcher, in say the United States of America, entering an agricultural research organization is surrounded by people who are fairly effective at managing at their level. The new scientist learns management on the job, the most effective way to learn most things. After independence, few developing-economy agricultural research organizations had indigenous management experience. Managers and staff have had to learn together.

The second difference has had to do with the general management environment. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, management became a discipline of importance in industrialized countries. In the early twentieth century, universities began to teach management, with a focus on industry. Today management is a serious concern of virtually all segments of society in industrialized countries. This is supported by a multi-million dollar annual business in management training in those countries. When one comes from a developing economy to an industrialized one, one is struck by the degree of organization, discipline, planning and management of virtually everything. This difference between the two types of economy works to the disadvantage of the developing-economy agricultural research manager.

Research management: a key ingredient

An FAO paper reviewing FAO's experience in strengthening NARS notes that FAO's first attempt to come to grips with research organization, planning and management issues at the national level was at an FAO European meeting held in London in October 1951. At the meeting, a survey of approaches to administration and financing of agricultural research by European countries was examined. It was also in 1951 that FAO appointed a part-time officer to deal with agricultural research.

In 1962, the position was made full-time. A number of national projects with research organization and administration components were conducted. A research centre was established in FAO in 1972, which, in addition to national research support, also provided the Secretariat of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These two functions were separated in 1976, and the Research Development Centre (RDC) became the focal point for research support activities in FAO, including sole responsibility for research organization and management aspects of FAO's assistance. In FAO's "The State of Food and Agriculture 1972", it was noted that "guidance in programming, administration, the establishment of appropriate institutions as models for new programmes, training in research techniques, and training of research directors, managers and administrators ..." were areas that deserved support.

From FAO review and planning missions and recommendations arising from expert consultations and seminars, increasingly the message was that poor management of existing human, financial and physical resources was the greatest bottleneck to agricultural research in developing economies. In late 1983, FAO convened an expert consultation on strategies for research management training in Africa, where one of the delegates, Dr Amir Muhammed, echoed the prevailing opinion: "Experience has shown that management capability becomes a limiting factor in getting the full benefits from an agricultural research system ..." Based on the recommendations of that consultation, FAO initiated preparation of agricultural research management manuals, and began a programme of regional and national management seminars and workshops. While concern was growing within FAO about management capabilities in NARS, this concern was reflected elsewhere.

It had become such an issue during the 1970s that the Rockefeller Foundation and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany convened a meeting in Munich in April 1977 to discuss the possibility of creating and supporting a service to assist the development of NARS in developing economies. This meeting led to the establishment of a task force "to consider the need for an international service to strengthen national institutions and programmes for agricultural research." The task force concluded that "existing agencies ... cannot meet the pervasive needs of NARS in full." It was proposed that a new organization be established as a part of the CGIAR system to "concentrate largely on planning, organizational, and management issues." On 1 October 1980, the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) was established. Its ultimate goal was "to enable developing countries to plan, organize, manage and execute research more effectively from their own human, natural and financial resources." Recognizing that this goal was more than any one organization could manage, ISNAR was instructed to "work in close cooperation with all international organizations, in particular FAO." ISNAR's constitution provided for a trial period of six years to test the need for the service. On the recommendations of an external review team, the ISNAR Board and TAC, ISNAR was subsequently made a permanent international institute in the CGIAR system.

Components of a worldwide agricultural research management programme

The primary components of a research management programme are training, consultancy, research, and communication. Training is important because it increases the skills of current managers, provides new information and enhances analytical skills. While there are a number of ways to accomplish this, in balancing costs and benefits one is drawn to a programme wherein a faculty trains a group of participants. This is the primary approach employed by FAO, ISNAR and other international agencies currently involved in management development activities.

Defining FAO's role

Training in management would help overcome management-related barriers to increasing agricultural productivity through effective agricultural research management. Some of the major constraints observed in developing economies are:

Modus operandi

The task of training is huge, while resources - particularly trained staff - are limited. Based on an extrapolation of data reported in an ISNAR external programme review, there were approximately 115,000 agricultural scientists in developing economies in 1990. All of these would benefit from an introduction to agricultural research project management, while about 10% would need the basics of research institution management. If one assumes 20 managers per course, it would mean 5,750 project management and 575 institute management courses. It is reasonable to assume that 5% of the scientists are new each year. Thus, just to meet the needs of new entrants, 288 project management and 29 institution management programmes would need to be held annually, even if there were no growth in the number of agricultural research scientists. The ten-or-less agricultural research management courses provided annually throughout the world, aimed at developing-economy agricultural researchers, is insignificant in comparison.

Besides the basic programmes, courses on specialized areas of agricultural research management, such as planning, organization, management information systems (MIS), evaluation, client-institute relations, personnel management, etc., are also needed. Programme evaluation activities have been shown to enhance the benefits of training.

Clearly, FAO and all of the other agencies active currently in strengthening agricultural research management skills cannot train all of the world's agricultural research managers. Even training the new entrants to the field is a job far beyond the combined capabilities of the few agencies involved.

The only feasible option under the circumstances is to train the trainers, in the expectation that it will have a multiplier effect. That would also help adaption of training to regional and country-specific needs. FAO has therefore initiated such training activity through preparation of "Management of agricultural research - a training manual" (FAO, 1997), composed of 10 teaching modules and designed to be used as a basic resource by national trainers when structuring and conducting their own courses.

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