Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Addressing the ‘knowledge gap’

Dr Julie Ingram, Senior Research Fellow at the Countryside & Community Research Institute reflects on the landbridge workshop and her involvement in a European project which is attempting to synthesise and convert agricultural research outcomes into suitable formats for farmers, advisers and others in the supply chain.

I attended the Landbridge workshop Taking Stock of the Links between Research and the Land the British Academy on 1 May.
The context of the workshop was knowledge exchange between land professional and researcher. In particular it was looking at how to make communication between research and advisers more effective. One of the emerging themes at the workshop was the so-called ‘knowledge gap’ between researchers and advisers. This has been attributed to past changes in funding and policy, which were intended to make research more responsive to users’ needs, but have led to what some feel is an increasing disconnect between research and practice.
Participants at the Workshop thought that this gap is exacerbated by the large number of research providers (public and private) and their extensive research outputs which makes it difficult for advisers to find relevant information. The nature of the outputs was also considered to be problematic with scientific reports and peer reviewed publications often being too lengthy and written in complex scientific language. Commercial sensitivity, copyright issues and cost also prevented some advisers from accessing outputs.
A recently launched European funded project called VALERIE (VALorising European Research for Innovation in agriculturE and forestry) aims to address some of these issues. It is based on the rationale that many EU and nationally funded research projects in the fields of agriculture and forestry provide excellent scientific results but that outreach and translation of these results into farming and forestry practices is limited.  VALERIE over the course of the next four years  will:
          Review and summarise knowledge - from national, international and EU research projects and studies - for innovation in agriculture and forestry
          Convert research outcomes with innovation potential into suitable formats for end-users (farmers, advisers, and enterprises in the supply chain)
          Consult stakeholders in ten case studies to identify knowledge gaps, assess technical and economic viability of innovative solutions and to reveal barriers to uptake
          Develop a ‘smart’ search engine for agricultural and forestry knowledge and research outputs, for use by farmers, foresters, advisers and researchers. This ‘Communication Facility’ (“”) will not only make new knowledge accessible to the end-users, but will also enable them to share their knowledge, experience and views with peers across Europe. Continuity is ensured by embedding it in the European Innovation Partnership NF Platform
For more information:

(Re)Connecting science and professional practice

Sue Steer, land agent and Chair of RICS Countryside Policy Panel gives her thoughts on the recent landbridge workshop

My profession in general has not had strong links with the scientific research communities; apart from those surveyors employed in the old Ministry of Agriculture, who worked daily with scientists with access to an immense network of scientific knowledge.  This wealth of research information was largely gathered through the Experimental Husbandry Farms, which were strategically located nationwide to serve the different systems of agriculture. This network of knowledge, built up over many decades with the corresponding  means of dissemination  was swept away by the government in the interests of (short term) economy in the late 80s and 90s. There was a unanimous feeling of regret at the workshop that this system of coordinated  research, dissemination via the specialist land advisors to the farmers and land managers and back to the researchers (plus the opportunity to demonstrate results on the farms), had been so comprehensively dismantled. I read in Farmers Weekly this week that Defra are seeking to dramatically  increase the use  of private companies to undertake research ;  if this is correct it is likely to be detrimental to the research which does not have a direct financial return, (but should be carried out in the public interest).
An erudite Keynote Address by Professor Ian Crute , Chief Scientist, AHDB set the standard for the day, using examples of his own research he explained the challenges of establishing the direction of research with competing interests and tight funding. Many diverse interests can have common objectives and Ian considered that co-ordination of these common aims to help deal with the challenges and opportunities of managing land in a more sustainable way for the future was immensely important.  Jeremy Phillipson followed Ian with a useful summary of the Landbridge Project and the potential for rural professionals as key intermediaries.  The key is knowledge exchange which should be a two way approach with those working in the field feeding back to the researchers as well as vice versa. The question is how can this be done in a coordinated way as well as not just driven by the requirements for economic growth but in the interests of future well-being? This should be the role of government to consult widely and set research objectives and priorities even if it needs to enter into partnerships with private interests.
Two panels one of rural practioners and the other a specially selected group of researchers involved in the rural knowledge exchange field provided the workshop with a comprehensive overview of their personal experiences and in projects which they are involved. All the presentations were valuable and demonstrated the wide range of activities being undertaken and approaches to knowledge exchange.  I hesitate to single out one presentation however, in view of the focus on Scotland this year, I feel justified in mentioning Julie Fitzpatrick’s talk on the history and work of the Moredun Research Institute. It was established by a group of forward thinking farmers in 1920, to help find solutions to improve the health of livestock. Those involved with land management and farmers are still very much involved with the work and coordination with the scientists and pay an annual subscription. It struck me as an excellent model of knowledge exchange.

We must inspire and focus on skills

Jonathan Brunyee, National Trust tenant farmer, agri-environment consultant and farm business management lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University reflects on the Landbridge workshop held on 1st May.

What an exciting and worthwhile event.  But how do we turn all the activity and knowledge that gathered in the room into something meaningful for advisers and farmers on the ground?
Although I am now part of it, the world of academic research remains a dark and mysterious place. While I find it intriguing and inspiring, I also find it a somewhat daunting and competitive world.  It’s one that I feel is sometimes too disconnected and distant from day to day land management.
Our first challenge. Somehow we must, first of all, make research (the process and outputs) more accessible and useful to those of us, maybe the less traditionally academic and more practical people like me who are actually within our universities and colleges.
We, as lecturers, must disseminate and translate, and most importantly, inspire. This is an uphill battle If we don’t feel part of the research body or see its relevance.
Traditional academic research isn’t the only area of research we discussed. I have been involved with quite a few consultancy research projects on the ground over the years.  Projects that have looked at conservation grazing, biodiversity decline, rural enterprise, CAP reform etc.  These are often short and sharp pieces of action research work, with defined outputs and recommendations.   But how often do these pieces of work sit on shelves, and do not get used or shared? How often was the research a duplication of something that has been done before?  How often was the brief so poor that the client didn’t get what they needed?
And maybe this leads me to our second key challenge.  Working land professionals and clients must get better at identifying their research needs - the things that will really make a difference – the ‘so what’ question. We must recruit and manage the right research or consultancy team, and utilise and share the outcomes.
We must break down the barriers between researchers and clients. The co-creation and delivery of research can only result in better outputs and translation on the ground.
Our third challenge is probably the most important. For research to mean better practice, it must inform and lead to improved skills and training at the coal face.  And this depends on having training strategies, good/inspiring trainers on the ground, varied programmes (CPD, short courses, distance learning, group, one to one etc.) and a delivery budget. 
Most of us learn by doing and reflecting, not by reading journals or attending lectures.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Knowledge exchange: a two-way street

David Caffall, Chief Executive of the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) reflects on the role of the agri-supply industry in linking research and practice.    

The recent workshop, hosted by Landbridge on 1 May, brought together key components from within the knowledge exchange pipeline, ranging from experts involved in R&D and professional’s delivering advice at the coal-face to farmers across the country.

Whilst the focus of the discussions during the day centred on the role that the land professions could play in linking the laboratory and the farm, it is important that we don’t lose sight of a vital mechanism which already exists to effectively connect researchers with farmers and vice versa.

Over the years businesses across the agri-supply industry have made significant inroads by developing collaborative relationships with Research Councils, levy bodies, leading universities, veterinary schools and Centres of Excellence. They also invest over £45 million each year in their own near-market research (including field and animal feeding trials, laboratory studies and farm pilot studies), to explore the innovative potential from research conducted in the public sector. This ensures that the latest science is readily available to their extensive army of professional advisers for translation onto farms across the UK.

Just a year ago AIC published it’s Ring of Confidence model[1]  which demonstrates the trusted relationship that farmers have with their professional advisers such as agronomists/crop advisers, feed advisers, seed representatives and grain traders. This relationship means that advisers provide a feed-back loop back to the R&D community and shows how the channels of communication have been opened up so that knowledge exchange is very much a ‘two-way street’.

Engagement with the R&D base to drive the translation of science onto farms has to be a priority as knowledge transfer is simply only one half of the story. We need to draw on the experience of existing models that best effect a knowledge exchange with feed-back loops which aren’t closed and facilitate the exchange of knowledge from researcher to farmers and farmers to researchers.

[1] AIC (2013) Value of Advice Report

Closing the circle?

Agronomist Patrick Stephenson gives his thoughts on the links between research and practice following the landbridge workshop on May 1st.

Newcastle University via the Centre for Rural Economy hosted a landbridge workshop and discussion on the link between research and implementation. I was a panel member as a practising agronomist commenting my thoughts on how research findings are delivered to the farmer and grower to improve production systems and outputs. Other speakers included veterinary, environmental consultants and farmers. From an agronomic perspective research and innovation are practiced daily by farmers and growers around the country. The use of the most recently developed pesticides; precision farming and environmental land management by farmers and growers are all the outcome of research done previously by scientists. What are the issues if this is deemed not to be successful? Agriculture has been a recession hit industry for some 20 +years this has also coincided with the Governments withdrawal of money from work deemed to be “near market”  has meant that the downstream users of generated research have no attachment to the science . If we add to this the reverse analogy namely detachment of researchers from the end user, and the lack of opportunities for the free flow of information through the whole chain from scientist to advisor to practitioner to consumer and back, then progress will not be made. Science and research will remain trapped in a spiral of research justification and papers long lost in the archives under who cares? Can we do anything about this? In my opinion yes! The researcher has to be aware of the end user NOT the research funder but the target audience. Each project, thesis, and program should seek to have links in the relevant subjects for example:-
Issue of compaction on re-instated soils
This could have a soil scientist, an agricultural engineer, a utility company and an agronomist
Natural resistance to Saddle Gall Midge
This could have an entomologist a plant breeder, geneticist, and an affected grower.
I can feel researchers screaming at the screen reading this saying we do this already. Unfortunately, if you do then the end message is being woefully lost. Researchers must once more be in the spotlight not consigned to the backroom; to do this requires integration throughout the industry. Only then will we understand the science and research and be advocates of it. Science must be presented as accessible and important not a sound bite on the national news.
Organisations that could help facilitate this need pulling together, could landbridge be the answer? Possibly but it certainly could be a catalyst.
Was this meeting useful?  Yes.
Could something be done?  Yes
Will something evolve? Who knows?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Making the Link – Research and Practice

Chloe Palmer, farm and environment adviser, reflects on the landbridge workshop ‘Taking stock of the links between research and the land professions’ and what this means out in the field

It has always been tough for farmers and advisers to find time in their increasingly hectic schedules to keep themselves updated on research findings. 
So the event at the British Academy on 1st May organised by Newcastle University’s Landbridge Network was a welcome opportunity for me to hear and discuss how links could be improved between research and practice to make it easier for those on the front line to influence and gain access to land-based research.

Practitioner panel discussion featuring Tony Pexton (2nd left)
and James Husband (1st right)

Tony Pexton OBE summed up the challenge ahead by referring to his son Will and the needs of their family farming business in East Yorkshire. He can see how climate change, rising costs and declining resource availability will mean the future farmer’s job is a difficult one. Research will always have to be one step ahead to provide the answers, but then those findings must also be made available in an easily accessible format to those who need them most.
I was recently lucky enough to interview a family at a state of the art dairy unit in Nottinghamshire. The unit is managed by the two sons and daughter in their twenties and this team of forward thinking, highly intelligent and committed farmers are driven by the desire to continually improve the performance of their dairy herd.
Not content with relying on the extensive experience of their family and neighbours, the Bacon family work closely with their own vets and the veterinary team at the University of Nottingham. This allows them access to the latest findings to help them tackle mastitis and to improve their management of dry cows and fertility.
They also have an excellent relationship with their dairy consultant who considers how nutrition, housing and the management of groups of cows might help to increase yield.
James Husband, a Dairy Consultant speaking at the Landbridge event in London referred to the challenges facing dairy farmers but also recognised the role of the much belied supermarkets. Mr Husband pointed out the supermarkets are a key driver of higher standards in many aspects of dairy production and they are also promoting the flow of information between researchers and practitioners.
This view was confirmed by the Bacons who are delighted that as a member of the Sainsbury’s Sustainable Dairy Group, they are supported by their buyer to strive for continual improvement in all aspects of cow welfare and environmental efficiency.
The discussions at the British Academy are hopefully just the start of an exciting initiative which will see better links between universities, research establishments, advisers and their representative bodies and of course, farmers. Better communication between these groups is imperative if the industry is to continue to benefit from the best and most relevant research findings which will be so pivotal to the future of food production in the UK.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Taking stock of the links between research and the land professions

Fiona Mannix, Associate Director Land Group at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors gives her reflections on the latest landbridge workshop which aimed to identify how knowledge exchange might be improved between research providers and the land professions

On 1 May I had the pleasure of attending a Landbridge workshop at the British Academy. Landbridge, who we are keenly involved with, is a knowledge exchange network for researchers and rural professionals who advise farming and land businesses. The workshop was titled Taking Stock of the Links between Research and the Land Professions.
Landbridge believes that improving land management is imperative to such objectives as food security, sustainable development and the management of environmental change, and land professionals are vital to this process. In recent years the land professions themselves have recognised both the need to update their own knowledge and skills through programmes of continuing professional development, and the demand from land managers for more specialised advice. At the same time, research funders have begun investing in major research programmes into land use challenges. But a gap still exists between research and practice and we lack effective models for knowledge transfer and exchange.

The government’s Agricultural Technologies Strategy  notes that the UK has strengths in research vital to agriculture and related technologies and innovative and dynamic farmers. What are less clear are the priorities for the advice and service networks that support agriculture and what role the land professions could play in linking ‘the laboratory and the farm’.  Shortcomings can range from how land professionals are able to engage with research (be it public or private; basic, applied or strategic) or find out about research findings, to how the professions are placed in relation to research decision making and agenda setting. Knowledge exchange between the professions and researchers needs to be improved so that land professionals are better sensitised to the latest research, while research has to be more responsive to the contemporary challenges of land management and professional practice.

The workshop was chaired by Sue Steer, Chair of the RICS Countryside Polices Panel and a member of the Landbridge advisory panel. The day opened with a number of presentations on a range of topics and some personal views of the issues involved in linking research into practice from a range of people including agronomists, vets, farmers, environmental and agricultural consultants were expressed. Lunch was followed by more presentations which explored different models, strategies and contexts of linking research and professional practice. These were followed by a practical exercise which involved six tables with facilitators, of which I was one.

The overall aim of the workshop was to identify how knowledge exchange might be improved between research providers and the land professions and the key questions addressed by the tables included:

How are research agendas responding to the needs of the land professions?
What knowledge exchange approaches and mechanisms have been adopted and how could they be improved?
How can agriculture and land advisory professions expertise better inform public and private research priorities and programmes?
Participants at the six tables were tasked with discussing a number of specifics. At my table we were tasked with ultimately highlighting the top five constraints currently preventing professions’ expertise from informing public and private research priorities and programmes and the top five priorities for action which will allow better links and communication so that expertise from professions and industry can inform research priorities and programmes. Personally this was a very worthwhile exercise with some very solid suggestions coming through for future actions.
All who attended felt it was a valuable and much needed event with some key issues raised and, most importantly of all, some strong solutions mooted and action points developed by all tables that can be followed up on going forward in order to ensure that research and professional practice are as closely linked as possible. All feedback is currently being collated by Landbridge and will be disseminated via RICS Rural Practice Update in due course.
RICS Rural Professional Group and Countryside Policies Panel look forward to continued engagement and involvement with Landbridge. Landbridge is administered by the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University. RICS Land Journal regulatory features research findings from the Rural Economy and Land Use programme based at the centre.

This blog is reprinted from a comment piece posted on the RICS website on 7th May 2014: