Memorandum submitted by Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern
1. This submission concentrates on the science
base which I understand the Committee is now taking a particular
2. The growth in yield in agricultural crops
world-wide is slowing and is now lower than the growth in population.
This is one of the fundamentals that indicate that the food crisis
is not temporary. Primary agricultural production (crops and forages)
will need to approximately double by 2050. A significantly different
scenario involves either drastic cuts in the consumption of livestock
products in the developed countries or continued dietary poverty
in the developing world (or a combination of both). This presents
a challenge for research investment world-wide.
3. The main focus of this submission is
the effect of the research management mechanisms used and the
profound implications of changes in research management within
Defra. An account of the development of Defra's approach to the
management of agricultural research is provided. It is concluded
that the research management mechanisms now used by Defra are
suited to investing in relatively short-term research that is
tightly focused on current policy questions and on environmental
monitoring. This decentralised research management approach presents
special challenges for investment in strategic agricultural research
needed to underpin longer-term technical change and innovation
required to address food security.
4. Proposals for the future are made. Special
attention needs to be given to identifying strategic public research
needs in terms of coherent research targets and key capabilities
that serve a range of policy outcomes. The public agricultural
research effort needs to be rebuilt and reconfigured, parity of
esteem for researchers conducting and delivering applied research
needs to be restored, and we need to replace "funding"
with "investment". A natural tendency for most interested
parties to look at the volume of investment should be complemented
by the Committee's consideration of the public sector research
management mechanisms used.
5. I am a general agricultural scientist
working independently in the space between science and public
policy development. I have a broad agricultural science and economics
background with a career that spans farming in Ireland, the development
and delivery of farmer-owned research in the north of England,
research work in the German Ministry of Agriculture, and work
in Defra. In addition to supporting research groups with insight
into public research policy, I am embedded as a policy/delivery
specialist in several research teams across Europe. I am also
involved in studies of the environmental performance of the UK
food system from a global perspective.
6. In relation to the Committee's interest
in science, my most relevant experience arises from my close involvement
in the development and management of the Defra agricultural research
programme between 1999 and 2007, including 18 months
as Defra's first Farming and Food Science Coordinator working
in an acting capacity. I was therefore closely involved in the
direction of Defra's agricultural and food research effort, and
in the changes in research direction and management following
the formation of Defra. I was Defra's assessor on the Defra Research
Priorities Group and I am familiar with how Defra responded to
its recommendations. I am familiar with the UK agricultural science
base and the challenges facing it.
7. Before going into detail, I want to record
my high regard for Defra as a policy making body. I can assess
it from a perspective of having worked in two other European countries.
From that experience I regard Defra as a world-leader in environmental
and forward-looking agricultural policy. I believe that Defra
is a very professional organisation and well ahead of other European
agricultural departments in addressing the links between agriculture,
food and the environment. There is a deep commitment in Defra
to public service and to policy based on evidence.
Growth in global crop yields is slowing
8. Other submissions will have set out the
evidence that the "food crisis" is not just temporary.
I want to briefly underscore that here. Recent developments in
food markets are at least partly due to underlying and fundamental
trends in the demand and supply of food that are here to stay.
The risk of a modern food crisis was noted in the then Ministry
of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) as far back as 2000,
and research and debate about future levels of production was
This risk was mentioned in Defra's assessment of future research
needs in 2004.
Analysis of FAO data shows that the rate of growth in the yield
of staple crops has declined from 2-3% in the 1960s to 0-1% today
while the rate of growth of the human population is about 1.4%.
In contrast to the situation up until about 2000, the rate of
growth of the human population now exceeds the rate of growth
in crop yields. In addition, the global demand for resource demanding
livestock products is increasing. A combination of growth in population
and changes in diet means that primary agricultural production
(crops and forages) will need to approximately double by 2050.
A significantly different scenario involves either drastic cuts
in the consumption of livestock products in the developed countries
or continued dietary poverty in the developing world (or a combination
Increased research investment is needed
9. The growth in agricultural output world-wide
to meet growing demands to date has been enabled by a significant
agricultural research effort after 1945. There has been a decline
in public agricultural research globally since about 1985, particularly
in the developed economies.
This has happened in the UK too where, in addition to cuts in
spending, the public good nature of agricultural knowledge and
technology has been under-estimated and the ability of the private
sector to deliver knowledge and technology has been over-estimated.
It is sometimes forgotten that the great step changes in agricultural
science in the 20th century were the product of public investment
delivered mostly into the public domain. The momentum in knowledge
and technology supply generated in the period 1945 to 1985 combined
with the lag-time built into the agricultural knowledge supply
chain has delayed the manifestation of the effects of cuts in
investment over the last twenty years. It can be argued that that
period of living off the intellectual and technical capital built
up over the previous forty years is now ending.
Managed public sector agricultural research has
contracted in England and Wales
10. Throughout the developed world, particularly
in Europe, national governments have withdrawn from strategic
agricultural research, particularly in research institutes. What
is left is an increasing proportion of fundamental research that
uses agricultural species as models, and an array of private sector
activities. This fundamental research is particularly footloose
in Universities. In the UK, particularly England and Wales, the
combination of cuts in public investment in agricultural research,
changes in Defra's approach to research management, the over-estimation
of the ability of the private sector to compensate for cuts, and
the lower rewards given within and by the research community to
investigators who deliver solutions to practical problems have
contributed to the condition of UK agricultural research today.
Some of the underlying forces leading to this situation can be
traced to changes in MAFF and Defra since about 1980. Following
two decades of decline in budgets, changes between 2001 and
2004 to the research in Defra effectively closed what was
left of the centrally and scientifically led strategic agricultural
research programme that had formed the core of the UK agricultural
research effort up to that point. So before considering options
for the future, it might be useful to examine what happened in
MAFF and especially Defra over the last thirty years.
11. Until about 1970, UK scientists and
policy makers lived in parallel universes under the principles
for the public financing of research laid down by Lord Haldane
in 1918. The fact that a large proportion of the UK science budget
is still governed by these principles ninety years later says
something about the value of Haldane's principles and the resilience
of the scientific community in the face of change. Some real change
came in the early 1970s brought about by Lord Rothschild who considered
the growing role of science in policy making in the "white
heat of technology" era. Lord Rothschild reported to parliament
that "the country's needs are not so trivial as to be
left to the mercies of a form of scientific roulette".
This led to the transfer of a significant part of the UK research
budget from the research community (i.e. the Research Councils)
to individual government departments.
12. Lord Rothschild was clear that the job
of leading and managing research investment in a government setting
was not a trivial one. He stipulated that government departments
accepting research funds from the Research Councils to be administered
for the benefit of specific sectors of society (e.g. agriculture)
should set up dedicated science management capabilities led by
departmental Chief Scientists. MAFF implemented this fully and
maintained and directed a strategic research capability of world-wide
significance under its Chief Scientific Advisor and Chief Scientists.
Successive Chief Scientists, supported by a broad team of in-house
scientists in the Chief Scientist's Group (CSG), led the conversation
between the research community and policy makers, both in relation
to the financing and direction of research on one side and harnessing
of scientific evidence in the making and delivery of policy on
the other. The CSG was outward looking engaging as scientists
with the wider expert and external user communities. The word
"Liaison" was built into all its scientists' job titles.
For the first decade after the Rothschild reform, MAFF management
of the research effort was light-handed by today's standards.
It was informed and monitored by external expert input at the
The development of the gap between strategic and
13. The MAFF research effort was subject
to radical cuts in the 1980s. MAFF responded strategically informed
by an internal review led by Mr Chris Barnes (the "Barnes
Report"). This identified the "near-market" part
of the MAFF research effort that the industry could be expected
to pick up in line with Treasury policy at the time. This introduced
a boundary between underpinning strategic research and the down-stream
applied research and development needed to ensure delivery to
users. To my knowledge, the boundary between research to be funded
by MAFF and by the industry (for example through the Levy Bodies)
was not precisely defined. However, MAFF to its credit engaged
in a significant liaison effort which continues to this day to
manage and often lead research investment at that boundary. MAFF
also established and managed LINK Programmes that provided a platform
for public investment in research owned and led by the private
sector straddling public and private interests. However, the cutting
of "near-market" research investment inevitably left
a very long and dark shadow in MAFF and Defra.
14. Market failure provides the rationale
for public intervention at the working level. In that context,
the "near-market" debate left a legacy of a widely held
assumption at the working level that near-market research would
be picked up by industry. In other words, it was assumed that
"near-market" research is not subject to market failure
because it is concerned with marketable, or potentially marketable,
technologies and services. This faith in the ability or inclination
of the private sector to invest in "near-market" research
was fostered untested by the Treasury. This led to under-investment
in some research areas and a growing gap between the MAFF research
base and the private sector effort required for its exploitation.
The fragmentation of ownership of the MAFF research
15. Until about 1991, the MAFF research
budget was held centrally in MAFF. The Programme as a whole was
led and managed by the Chief Scientist and a Group of about 100 staffthe
Chief Scientist's Group (CSG). About half of the CSG staff comprised
scientists trained up to PhD level, senior members had brought
broad experience in practical research, agriculture and related
businesses from outside making the CSG a significant scientific
and expert resource in its own right. In about 1991, ownership
and ultimate control of the bulk of the MAFF's R&D was passed
from the CSG to senior policy administrators in MAFF split in
20 to 30 programmes, each aligned to one of the Ministry's
policy programmes. Administrators leading these policy programmes
were policy customers for the corresponding research programme.
The research continued to be commissioned by scientists in CSG
under the "double lock" arrangement which tried to attribute
equal weight to the views of CSG scientists and the respective
policy owner. The relationship between CSG research managers and
their research policy customers was collegial and equal and the
system worked well. This success was due in large part to the
active engagement of the Chief Scientist. He was broadly familiar
with the content of programmes and, crucially, he line-managed
the scientists running these programmes and in providing scientific
advice to policy colleagues. More detailed research administration
and evaluation procedures were introduced in the early 1990s to
reinforce a customer-contractor relationship with research providers
using the so-called ROAME
The fragmentation of the management of the Defra
16. This independent and influential position
of the CSG in MAFF with a centralised "intelligent customer"
function was the focus of a great deal of attention when Defra
was formed in 2001, especially since it came with a ring-fenced
research budget. It contrasted with the DETR's
decentralised approach with individual policy makers owning and
managing individual research projects focused on very specific
policy questions. At first, the two approaches ran in parallel.
An internal debate about the future management of the Defra research
effort as whole followed the appointment of Sir Howard Dalton
as the new Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) in March 2002. Having
considered the evidence that emerged in that debate, Professor
Dalton initially favoured the use the centralised (MAFF) approach
across Defra. However, an "integrated approach", which
turned out to be a stepping stone to a fully decentralised model,
was adopted starting in 2003-04. Responsibility for the ownership,
resourcing, direction and procurement of agricultural research
was decentralised to policy teams. Most of the ex-MAFF scientists
previously managed by the Chief Scientist/CSA were also dispersed
into policy teams. About a year later, the financial ring-fence
protecting Defra's research budget from financial pressures within
the Department was breeched.
17. Behind the decision to opt for the decentralised
approach lay some legitimate concerns that the formal separation
of research direction from policy leaves the science effort vulnerable
to capture by other forces. It was seen as vulnerable to being
distracted away from the policy agenda by either the research
community or by narrow agricultural sectoral interests (or both).
So the strategic R&D investment serving the improvement of
the environmental and economic performance of English and Welsh
agriculture ceased to exist in its own right and is now part of
wider ("cross-cutting") efforts serving policy objectives
that go well beyond agriculture and food. So the taxonomy of the
(reduced) agricultural research effort now mirrors the taxonomy
of the wider public policies that that the research is supposed
to support. The direct coupling of research programmes with individual
policies means that the flap of a butterfly's wing in policy development
or even just in the way policy is communicated by ministers can
cause a storm in research prioritisation, particularly when using
the bottom-up processes described below and when exposed research
budgets are at stake. A spending moratorium was used to accelerate
the change in direction of research programmes.
Another followed to address Defra budget problems. In a Full Economic
Cost recovery world, direct exposure to the vagaries of Departmental
budgets can do great damage to key research resources arbitrarily
and at short notice. "Decentralisation" had numerous
far-reaching implications for the management of research at the
18. Responsibility for identifying and prioritising
the research "owned" by the farming and food part of
Defra was delegated to committees comprising policy makers from
right across Defra responsible for climate change, water, food,
and faming systems and biodiversity. The idea was to link the
farming and food research effort to Defra's wider objectives and
to cultivate support across Defra for Defra's investment in agricultural
R&D. It is noteworthy that the agricultural and food part
of the Defra research effort was the only part of the Defra research
portfolio subjected to this form of cross-departmental governance
of research. These committees were inclusive of a wide range of
policy staff at the outset with varying levels of experience and
interest in agriculture. Decision-making processes had a strong
"bottom-up" character. Unanimous support for research
spending plans at the project level was required. These committees
found it difficult to give priority to strategic under-pinning
research essential to the long-term progress of agriculture over
shorter-term research more tightly focused on specific current
policy questions. The challenge was such that Defra had to procure
more external analysis to inform investment decisions in this
Leading and delivering agricultural research in
19. There is a Europe-wide trend of government
departments withdrawing from the active direction and use of research.
Given the role governments have had in investing in agricultural
research over the last 60 years, the effects of this withdrawal
from research is most clearly manifest in agriculture. We see
an increasing proportion of fundamental research that uses agricultural
species as models, and an array of private sector activities.
This research is particularly footloose in Universities. Although
the food and financial crises have reminded us of the role of
agriculture in the health of the economy, we may assume that European
national governments will not return to their previous role as
leading investors in agricultural research through their departments.
20. So we need new structures and partnerships
for the direction and delivery of public agricultural research
that reconsider the public good nature of the knowledge and technology
outputs required. By "public good" I mean research outputs
that are largely in the public domain and whose consumption is
non-rival. In designing new systems to direct and deliver research
based technical change, I propose four essential ingredients:
The identification of strategic public
research needs in science terms.
The rebuilding of the public agricultural
The restoration of parity of esteem for
The need to "invest in", instead
of "fund," research.
These are set out in detail as follows:
The identification of strategic public research
needs in science terms
21. The recognition of the public good nature
of agricultural knowledge and technology is a prerequisite to
an orderly debate about public investment in agricultural research.
This knowledge and technology is a public good in itself which
is used to protect and enhance public goods though enhancing the
environmental and productive performance of agriculture. The public
good nature of the agricultural research community's outputs has
been under-estimated and the ability of the private sector to
deliver knowledge and technology has been over-estimated. It is
sometimes forgotten that the great step changes in agricultural
science in the 20th century were the product of public investment
and were based largely on knowledge and technologies delivered
into the public domain.
22. It is very plausible to argue that the
way to get researchers to better serve public policy objectives
is to frame their work in line with those objectives. This is
also attractive because it avoids the difficult job of interpreting
current and future policy needs in terms of coherent research
objectives. But this tram-lining of research onto policy causes
fragmentation and duplication, and in the end many inaccessible
research outputs delivered too late. This was found by Defra itself
in an internal study in 2003 to characterise policy led research.
Three things need to be kept in mind in identifying coherent research
investments to serve policy. First: researchers deliver knowledge
and understanding, not policy. Second: policy-makers rarely operate
on timeframes compatible with those needed to identify and deliver
strategic research objectives in time to support those policies.
Third: policy-makers rightly respond to the political vision of
the day which, particularly in the area of agriculture and the
environment, is often developed later than the underlying real-world
forces driving that vision.
23. The recent EU sponsored crop research
priority setting exercise (EUROCROP)
emphasised the importance of identifying coherent science facing
research targets that cut across the wide range of public and
private objectives that should drive that research. Their thorough
work showed that some areas of research core to agricultural science
remain relevant across a wide range of policy scenarios and over
time. This points to the need to translate present and future
policy and market conditions into coherent research programmes.
This involves a degree of "intelligent decoupling" of
policy (public or commercial) and research objectives which is
hard but rewarding work that adds great value in the research
The rebuilding of the public agricultural research
24. In implementation of research investment,
the recent emergence of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development
Board offers an opportunity. There is a case for the AHDB playing
a significant role in the direction and management of publicly
funded agricultural research to support the technical change required
to deliver Defra's policies, integrated with its existing research
focused on its more commercial objectives. The recruitment of
a Chief Scientific Advisor by the AHDB provides an opportunity
to rebuild and reconfigure the public agriculture research effort
in such a way that unifies the pubic agricultural research effort
across the UK and even beyond.
The restoration of parity of esteem for applied
25. In the UK, a researcher who addresses
questions of practical significance to wider society is usually
regarded as less able or less worthy of peer recognition than
one who addresses research questions defined by him/herself or
by scientific peers. This has done great damage to the effectiveness
of the UK agricultural science base in terms of socio-political
outcomes. Thanks to Lord Haldane, a change here is in the gift
of the research community itself. This lack of parity of esteem
has profound consequences for the behaviours in the research community
affecting the efficiency of the research effort in terms of public
policy outcomes. Agricultural science draws on the basic sciences
to serve society through the bringing together and application
of those sciences in frameworks serving agricultural practice
and decision making. It is important that the agricultural scientific
community restores a sense of purpose in supporting technical
change in agricultural practice and policy development. We need
to stop using agricultural species and agricultural activity to
justify fundamental research which deep down is not being pursued
to improve those species and activities. Research models used
in an agricultural development context need to support agriculture,
not the other way round.
26. Systemsand interdisciplinary-thinking
are essential. Much of what passes as interdisciplinary research
is in fact a loose and temporary alliance between separate disciplinesthere
is a lot of multi-disciplinary activity, but relatively little
interdisciplinary thinking. This seems to be a particular problem
in England and Wales, and is getting worse as we see the effects
of the shift towards reductive science since 1990 come through.
There is a scarcity of people in research who appreciate the systems
or strategic context of their research and who design research
programmes around the needs of the system and the needs of the
research user. Likewise in research management, there is a scarcity
of people who have practical experience of agricultural research
and who have the wider experience required to orientate policy
objectives into coherent research investment, particularly in
the long-term. These skills need more nurturing and more reward.
The need to "invest in", instead of
27. There is a "funding" and "funded"
mentality running right through the system. "Funding"
provides a convenient backdrop to cuts. It is much easier to cut
a "funding" programme than it is to cut an "investment"
programme. Likewise, managing "funding" bears less responsibility
than managing "investment". The "funding"
system has also focused researchers on securing project funding
at the expense of contributing objectively to public debate on
research direction, and public returns to research investment.
So the words "funder" and "funding" are a
curse to the research community in its broadest sense, especially
to usersie policy-makers, industry and farming.
28. So my last point is the need to completely
change the mindset of those who finance and deliver research.
The mindset in the public research community that public bodies
"fund" and researchers are "funded" damages
both. It results in a mutually harmful donor/donee relationship
and mentality which does not foster a focus on returns to society.
Embedding the consideration of the public financing of research
as an investment would have benefits for both the researchers
and the public bodies that support them. An "investor"
will consider consequences in terms of lost returns to previous
investment before terminating financing or compromising a capability.
The consideration of the finance as an investment would also focus
financing organisations on delivering a return to society and
would reinforce the need to design research portfolios accordingly.
Likewise on the research provider side, the realisation that the
flow of finance is an investment would focus researchers' minds
on the responsibility of delivering returns.
29. The recent food crisis is not a temporary
phenomenon. Public agricultural research programmes need rebuilding
world-wide. The research management approaches used in Government
can have profound effects on the direction and effectiveness of
the resulting research and the policy outcomes achieved. In considering
the condition of the UK science base, the Committee might consider
the effect of changes that were made to the management Defra research
in recent years, in addition to consideration of the effects of
cuts in investment since 1985.
Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern,
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