Guest blog: ‘Keeping in mind the real use of our research’

Haseeb-Md.-Irfanullah_Sirajganj-e1556713760956
Irrigating rice fields in Sirajganj, Bangladesh. Photo: Haseeb Md. Irfanullah.

In this guest blog, Dr Haseeb Md. Irfanullah discusses the findings of a recent workshop he was a rapporteur of in Bangladesh on the potential impact on policy and practice of agricultural research in the country.

A research system is basically made up of four components: accessing, conducting, communicating, and utilizing research. While we often talk about the first three, use of our research in policy and practice is less frequently discussed in developing countries. Discussions at a recent workshop in Bangladesh about recent agricultural and biological science research projects revealed opportunities to make connections between research and its usage.

An innovative initiative to fund research

Since 2010, as part of a long-term programme of funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences (BAS) has been managing an endowment programme to support Bangladesh’s research to solve problems of food security. To date, 102 projects have been funded via this fund, costing a total of about US$ 4.4 million.

The BAS-USDA Endowment Program has detailed proposal development guidelines and rigorous selection process. It also follows an extensive review and monitoring protocol throughout the project cycle, ensuring funded researches bring out good, useful results. The programme is a rare example of non-government research funding mechanism in Bangladesh.

Recently, the programme organized a workshop in Dhaka to discuss the findings and the way forward of 23 agricultural and biological sciences research projects funded within the second phase (January 2015−November 2018). The presentations and discussions provided an opportunity to see how the components of a research system are being dealt with in an emerging economy like Bangladesh.

Impacts for research and researchers

The 23 projects of the second phase, with a total budget of about US$ 900 thousand, were spread across research areas, with 14 projects dealing with crops, mostly rice, five with livestock, three with fisheries, and one on human health.

These projects created fantastic opportunities to build the capacity of young Bangladesh researchers. It has already resulted in 53 master’s degrees, one MPhil, and one PhD – and an additional three master’s and 13 PhD researchers are waiting to submit their theses or to receive their degrees. These amazing numbers show how modest investments can bring about big research outputs in a developing country like Bangladesh.

In terms of communicating research, the projects have so far produced 35 peer-reviewed journal papers and there are another 12 manuscripts either under review or due to be submitted to journals soon.

Using research outputs

From the workshop presentations and subsequent discussions, it was noted that, out of the 23 research projects, the outputs of 11 pieces of research, in the forms of information, tools, or techniques, could directly be used by farmers, government and private agencies that support agriculture, NGOs, traders, agro-businesses, and other relevant stakeholders.

The outputs of 12 other research projects could contribute to further research before having on-the-ground impact in the agriculture sector, for example new cultivable crop or fish varieties tolerant to changing environment, protecting crop or livestock from important diseases, or enhancing nutritional security of the people.

Two of the 23 projects were identified by the workshop participants as having clear, immediate policy implications. Food adulteration, for example, is a big concern in Bangladesh. The research findings on indiscriminate use of antibiotics in the poultry industry were identified to influence government policy and consumers’ behaviour, if disseminated properly. The research on fruit maturity timing could inform appropriate government agencies which fruit is supposed to come out in the market the earliest. This may help stop producers artificially changing fruit colour (before actual maturation) to unethically fetch premium prices. It is interesting to note that both studies have direct relation to long-standing challenge of Bangladesh – safe food and human health – thus quickly picked up for possible policy intervention.

Making research more useful and impactful

Several general suggestions came up in the discussions to make research more useful and impactful.

Look around you, again

  • Research teams often miss out who is doing what, even in their own country. They not only need rigorous literature review, but also need to explore other agencies’ work (sometimes not in public domain); in some research fields (e.g. enrichment of cereal with micro-nutrients, like zinc) some pieces of research might be taking place simultaneously due to government priority.
  • Research needs to be seen holistically. For example, while thinking about enriching rice with zinc or iron, researchers need to think beyond rice as we also get these elements from other food sources. The health impact of such enrichment should also be considered.

Break the silos, or at least connect them

  • The research modalities and purpose of universities and of research institutes (e.g. Bangladesh’s National Agricultural Research System institutes) are different. It is important that they collaborate, so that the latter can put the formers’ research in their core programmes. This would help the knowledge generated to be validated and release to the farmers.
  • Cooperation between research organizations and private sector (corporates and NGOs) is needed to take research to the field as well as to market the produce. It is true for promoting new crop varieties, new technology to improve cattle, new bio-pesticides, or new farming technology.

Know the end users of your research

  • Farmers are the ultimate users of most of the agricultural research outputs. Their acceptability and adoption are crucial. A rice variety might have higher micro-nutrient content, but may not be accepted by farmers due to cultivation and marketing issues.
  • Cost-effectiveness is also vital to take a new research output to the users and for sustainability.

It is great to have excellent publications and skilled researchers as outputs of our research projects. But we should also think about the real use of our research. Even if the ultimate solution of a problem cannot be achieved by our work directly, we can advance the knowledge so that others can take it onwards.

It is also important that we complete the full length of a research journey – from the problem identification to the solution – instead of being restricted to short-term results that fit the timing of one piece of funding. Both researchers and funding agencies need to understand that they are the travellers on the same research journeys.

Dr Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development-practitioner with a keen interest in research and its communication. He is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research system, and a mentor on AuthorAID. Haseeb tweets as @hmirfanullah

This blog first appeared on INASP website.

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