Knowledge for Development

The 2008 E-Consultation Report of the Advisory Committee “Building a Critical Mass”

Author: Rutger Engelhard, Judith Francis

Date: 02/12/2008


The concept of a ‘critical mass of scientists’ has entered the policy discussions of the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for ACP Agricultural and Rural Development. The AC members took up the challenge to reflect and elaborate on the concept during their 2008 e-consultation.


The concept of ‘critical mass of scientists’ refers to a minimum talent pool, or the basic minimum of well equipped and trained scientists in a range of disciplines, required for resolving problems in a specific sector. Sufficiently aligned with the international scientific community, these scientists can effectively respond to new and existing challenges, enabling sectors relating to development to improve their productivity and stay ahead of their competitors. A critical mass of scientists must be flexible and sustainable, responding to the priorities and needs of the time, and should be proactive in fashioning (and sustaining) the developmental agenda based on sound science, empirical data and trend analysis, etc. The critical mass of scientists, including economists and rural sociologists, should be brought together with other groups of experts such as farmers and farmers’ organizations, agro-processors, policymakers, and extensionists, to form a platform for sustained research and continuous innovation for ACP agricultural and rural development. It is important to include young professionals and female scientists in this platform. Collectively, a critical mass of scientists and other stakeholders are capable of giving the development process an initial push and, once the development process gets moving, maintaining the momentum of progressive, substantive change.

For an agricultural scientific community to reach its critical mass, favourable educational policies are required to strengthen universities. Students should be encouraged and enabled to pursue training in agricultural science up to the post-graduate level. Scientists should work together in multidisciplinary teams and share knowledge with farmers and agro-industrialists at the local, national and global level.

A ‘critical mass’ should include expertise in agricultural policy analysis, value chain development and management of natural resources and the environment. None of the scientific communities in ACP countries, perhaps with the exception of South Africa, has reached its critical mass, even if partnerships with non-ACP scientific institutions are taken into account. Every country and region should support teams of subject matter specialists not directly serving any one agricultural value chain or rural development issue.

The members of a scientific community that has reached its critical mass encourage each other to continuously improve. A constant exchange of new ideas and skills is the basis for innovation and for creating new and improved products and services. The members are engaged in research that fosters development, addresses new questions and generates new knowledge to respond and adapt to new challenges and opportunities. These communities are effectively linked to policymakers, agro-industries, producers and markets. They contribute to the transition to a knowledge economy that is continuously learning and forging ahead in the green revolution, the gene revolution, the nano revolution and other knowledge-based revolutions.

Obviously, the impact of such a critical mass will be beneficial for agricultural and rural communities in terms of their sustainable development and economic growth. The rate of innovation will increase, as will agricultural productivity, marketing and trade. Relevant innovative technologies will become available, leading to higher levels of efficiency and productivity. Rural areas will be transformed, rural poverty reduced and sustainable livelihoods enhanced. Standards of living and quality of life will be improved and new services and goods will become available to meet changing needs. However, a critical mass must be supported by enabling policies and good management and leadership. Additionally, a critical mass would have wider impact beyond agriculture and rural development as it would contribute to overall socio-economic development.