Knowledge for Development

Judith's pick - July 2014

20/07/2014 - Judith Francis

Dear readers, 

The  upcoming July/August newsletter is being prepared: it will feature a new dossier on the sorghum value chain with two commissioned articles on the subject and relevant recent developments. We have updated our newsletter mailing system and are excited to test it! You will receive a shortened version of the newsletter in your inbox and be able to download the extended content in a PDF file (it's not an email attachment any more). 

Below, we're sharing a number of recent developments like this interesting take of value judgments being an inevitable part of the policy debate when scientific evidence is inconclusive. Hiding/suppressing implicit interests and values in a debate can ultimately harm public trust but a willingness to divulge these interests may be the best path to promoting good science and policy. 

'Sustainable intensification' in agriculture is a rather new concept: Ian Scoones looks at the literature to get to the substance of this narrative and finds little evidence of a real political debate and actual public participation. 

Trans-disciplinary faculty collaborations should be understood as a complex (not complicated) dynamic system, finds Linda Vanasupa. A timely piece of thought on transformative learning for our recent new dossier on 'research collaboration'. The five-step publishing workflow LIBRE developed by Open Scholar C.I.C. gives research cooperation, university committees and funding agencies a fundamental role in the development of independent peer-review platforms necessary for high-quality academic self-publishing

We also like the guide for journalists on how to read and write about a scientific study and we found two great pieces of journalism in agricultural development to illustrate good reporting practices. One is a blog post revealing the flaws of randomised controlled trials in the analysis of cowpea seed uptake and the other denounces a criminal distribution system of fake seeds in Uganda

CTA's Judith Francis talks about innovations in agriculture in the recent Devex article 'Linking up for a food-secure world'. 

Please note that Second Ministerial Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa, organised by the African Development Bank will take place in Rabat, Morocco from 14 to 17 October 2014. 


Science, policy, and the transparency of values

Guiding principles for communicating scientific findings in a manner that promotes objectivity, public trust, and policy relevance have been proposed by Kevin C. Elliott (Michigan State University, US) and David B. Resnik (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, US) . These are based on current ethical, conceptual, and empirical studies of objectivity and conflicts of interest in scientific research. Both conceptual and empirical studies of scientific reasoning have shown that it is unrealistic to prevent policy-relevant scientific research from being influenced by value judgments. Conceptually, the current dispute over an EC report on its regulatory policy for endocrine-disrupting chemicals illustrates how scientists were forced to make value judgments about appropriate standards of evidence when informing public policy. Empirical studies provide further evidence that scientists are unavoidably influenced by a variety of potentially subconscious financial, social, political, and personal interests. The authors conclude that when scientific evidence is inconclusive and major regulatory decisions are at stake, it is unrealistic to think that values can be excluded from scientific reasoning. Thus, efforts to suppress or hide interests or values may actually damage scientific objectivity and public trust, whereas a willingness to bring implicit interests and values into the open may be the best path to promoting good science and policy. (Environmental Health Perspectives, 01/ 07/2014)


Sustainable intensification: a new buzzword to feed the world?

Ian Scoones, at Future Agricultures, reviews the literature on 'sustainable intensification' (SI) in particular at what differentiate the concept of 'sustainable agriculture' from the one of 'sustainable intensification', only to find a 'crisis' narrative. Scoones notes that a social and political analysis is absent, a fact that undermines the approach. He concludes: 'For SI to be anything more than a rather odd collection of technical solutions, the questions of socio-technical choice and direction must be put at the forefront. This means having a political debate, and bringing in people more centrally, something that may jar with the rather bland techno-economic prescriptions offered to date.'  (Futures Agricultures, 16/06/2014)


Laying the foundation for trans-disciplinary faculty collaborations: actions for a sustainable future

In this special issue on 'Education and Skills for the Green Economy', Linda Vanasupa of California Polytechnic State University and colleagues present an answer to how academics can successfully participate in trans-disciplinary projects. Based on their own experience in an ongoing research cooperation programme, the authors offer a post-industrial era metaphor for trans-disciplinarity – that of a complex dynamic system – that helped them work through the unexpected encounters in the process of transformative learning. They describe the systemic conditions that are repeatedly reproduced including: conflict, existential crisis, transformation and renewed vitality which would have been overlooked or interpreted as a hindrance to their work. These insights serve as socially robust body of knowledge to support the effective participation of academics in projects of a trans-disciplinary nature. (Sustainability, 14/05/2014)


Academic self-publishing: a not-so-distant-future

The Open Scholar C.I.C. argues that the current structure of scientific journals is restraining scientific progress, caused by rejection rates and lack of access. They see the urgent need for academic self-publishing. Open Scholar proposes LIBRE, a five step bottom-up workflow that will help the science community move from competition to collaboration and from closed to open access. (Open Scholar C.I.C, 19/06/2014)


Interpreting academic studies: a primer for media

Justin Feldman lists a series of question every science journalist should ask when reporting on a new scientific study. His article is part a Journalist’s Resource (JR) project, that examines news topics through a research lens. Feldman's guide looks at how a journalist should understand a research project's hypothesis, variables, unit of analysis, causation logic (such as Randomised Controlled Trials, systemic reviews or meta-analysis for example), results generalisation potential, intrinsic limitations and conclusions. (Journalist’s Resource, 27/05/2014)

Note: The following annotation offers a great example of insightful journalism, where a difference in field research methodology can influence the end results in a surprising way.


Behavioural responses and the impact of new agricultural technologies: Evidence from a double-blind field experiment in Tanzania

The results of a recent paper published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics comparing Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT) conducted with cowpea farmers in Tanzania, using an open RCT with a double-blind RCT ( used in medical science) were discussed by Venezuelan journalist and blogger Francisco Toro. The results were surprising and put into question the standard methodology that agricultural scientists commonly use to assess the success of the introduction of new agricultural technologies. Toro sums it up: 'In the open RCT, Tanzanian cowpea farmers who knew they were getting improved seed easily outperformed farmers who knew they were getting traditional seed. But in the double-blind study, farmers who weren’t told whether the seed they got was improved or not performed just as well whether that the seed they received was improved or traditional. In fact, farmers who used traditional seed without knowing it did just as well as farmers who used improved seed, whether they knew it or not. Only farmers who knew the seed they were given wasn’t improved lagged behind in productivity.' (Francisco Toro's blog, 09/04/2014)


Fake seeds force Ugandan farmers to resort to 'bronze age' agriculture

Counterfeiting gangs in Uganda are dyeing regular maize so that they have the characteristic pinkish orange colour of industrially processed maize seed. The Guardian reporting on the dire state of Uganda's seed system concludes that an apparent illegal industry has developed cheating farmers by selling them seeds that promise high yields but fail to germinate. The result is a crisis of confidence in commercially available high-yield seed. 'The seed market is very small compared to what you would expect from the returns to these hybrid seeds', says David Yanagizawa-Drott, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and part of a team currently researching the problem. A pilot study conducted 18 months ago 'found significant amounts of hybrid seeds that were falsified'. (The Guardian, 08/04/2014)




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