Feeding the world is an enormous challenge. But research is commonly funded in small pots. Adam Staines wrestles this paradox.

Adam Staines.

In the UK there has been an intellectual battle to make the case for more food-related research. Though the increasing global population (9Bn by 2050) will need more food, the third of global food wasted, problems of western obesity and overeating, and well-stocked supermarkets – combined with stark imagery of European wine lakes and butter mountains from the 1980s – have made it an uphill task to persuade a sceptical western society we need more food, let alone more food research.

Sir John Beddington in 2009 found one way to get over this hurdle, the now well-rehearsed ‘perfect storm’ scenario.  By bringing in parallel uncertainties over future energy and water supplies, and the potential disruption they will cause, food is now placed up front as one of the everyday necessities that might be adversely affected by population growth, climate change and other factors.

Potentially, the perfect storm has become “more perfect”: extreme weather events, political instabilities, speculative commodities trading and food price inflation have all persuaded governments to push food higher up the agenda.

However, one key aspect of food research has changed. We no longer consider food yields in isolation from their wider social and environmental context. We now talk about ‘sustainable intensification’ and ‘climate-smart’ agriculture, or to capture the UK research funders’ modus operandi: we need more sustainable, healthier, affordable and safer food.

Defining the problem

We have accepted the bigger picture, and the need for a more joined-up approach to food, so what’s the issue? In a nutshell, the increasing complexity and breadth of the problem makes it increasingly difficult for funders to address. Research is generally focused on a single problem – a project proposal is made with a clearly-defined objective, and an outcome that is deliverable on a relatively short timescale.

The crux of the issue for science-funding organisations is researchers’ “habit” of submitting proposals in £450,000 chunks – the size of a typical grant awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) where I work. This provides a manageable scale of activity to review, avoids too many arguments with collaborators, and prevents peer reviewers arguing over the necessity for the odd extra post-doc.

However, this does present significant delivery challenges for funders trying to address food research in a more joined-up way. Not least, this unintended ‘salami-slicing’ approach requires the linking and coordination of all of the funded activities. But industry and policymakers struggle to engage with a large and diverse portfolio of research, and this pattern of funding does not lend itself to multidisciplinary and cross-funder collaboration.

The alternative? BBSRC, amongst other funders, has been encouraging a broader multidisciplinary approach to food security and other ‘grand challenges’, for example, through its strategic longer, larger grants scheme. BBSRC also supports major, integrated programmes of research through its strategic funding of research institutes.

But we are challenged that this does not go far enough. Though I suggest the alternatives may not be palatable either. In my past life as a researcher, I remember the long nights and constant battles of developing consortium grants, when one UK funder did, bravely, try to change the status quo by adopting a large-scale funding model – only to have to bring back a smaller scale responsive system by popular demand.

A way forward

The solution? We need to be cleverer without being revolutionary.  ‘The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture’ paper by Pretty et al, previously digested on this blog, identifies a number of major challenges that need to be addressed. Pragmatism tells us the answers will need to come from numerous projects involving many researchers across the world – the challenge for funders will be in joining up those activities.

I would suggest this requires two factors. First, funders need to work together and develop programmes in partnership, or in parallel. Second, funding mechanisms need to encourage multidisciplinary approaches to the problems.

The Global Food Security Programme is an example of where the UK is trying to achieve this, not necessarily by funding new research programmes, but by providing mechanisms to enhance and expand partnership working between funders. A good example is the joint call between BBSRC and DFID in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Indian Government – Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID).

Is this enough? I’ll let others comment, but suggest we want neither endless workshops to join up many small pieces, nor a food research environment in which all the money goes en masse to just a very small number of institutions.

Maybe we just need to be more creative in the middle space between the two extremes?

About Adam Staines

Adam is the Strategy Programme Manager for Agri-Food at BBSRC which includes responsibilities across the food-chain. In addition to working on BBSRC’s strategic delivery of food security and its contribution to the Global Food Security programme, Adam works with colleagues in Go-Science and across government to better coordinate the UK Government’s food research and innovation strategy. Prior to working at BBSRC, Adam was a researcher in a number of areas including drug and nutrient metabolism, structural-based drug design, and bacterial manipulation for industrial biotech applications; holding posts at The University of Edinburgh, The University of St-Andrews and the University of Dundee at Ninewells Hospital.

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