Science Matters

Once every five years we celebrate the role of tree-based systems in human prosperity with an international congress. The World Congress on Agroforestry 2014 in Delhi, India, kicked off the second day of thematic sessions today with a programme on “Science Advances in Agroforestry”.

Although the Congress is multi-stakeholder by design, after the Policy prelude, the science segment sits in the middle between the business day and the development day as a better bridge for impact.

UK Environment Minister Hon Richard Benyon and soil health research scientist Dr Keith Shepherd ICRAF Nairobi 19Feb2013

UK Environment Minister Hon Richard Benyon and soil health research scientist Dr Keith Shepherd ICRAF Nairobi 19Feb2013

There are six million scientists in the world but less than 0.1% of them would likely described themselves as an agroforestry scientist. Although since Albert Einstein said “Science is a refinement of everyday thinking” perhaps everyone is a scientist in one form or another.

But all scientists (sensu stricto) and indeed all 7.2 billion humans alive today rely in one way or another on tree products and services – and therefore in a way rely on agroforestry scientists. Yes, give yourself a clap.

Also give a generous clap to the two keynote speakers that triggered our high quality science day:

Tatiana Sa from EMBRAPA in Brasil first led the captivated audience through a contextual history of agroforestry science finishing with why it is highly relevant today in the soon to be post-2015 era.

This was followed by Kate Schreckenberg’s (University of Southampton) expose of 21st Century Challenges and how social and biophysical agroforestry science can help unravel the conundrum of the planetary and societal boundaries. Kate also reminded us that we learn as much from our research failings as we do from our successes, and therefore we need to embrace them and publicish them more avidly.

The word “Science” is derived from a similar Latin word which means “to know” or “knowledge”. Overall three types of science were presented today in plenary and in 12 exciting parallel sessions accompanied by 350 posters;

Type 1 Science is where we have enough knowledge and we just need to extend it.
Type 2 Science is where we still have significant knowledge gaps that need filling. And…
Type 3 Science is where by testing different ways of extending knowledge we develop a co-learning framework on second generation research problems and impact delivery.

Perhaps the biggest delusional trap we all have to watch out for is believing that innovation and quality evidence is confined to Type 2 Science, especially of the purely academic variety.

We also have to avoid the outdated belief that it is local research and then repeated actions that lead to adoption and impact at scale when rather it will be research at scale that leads to local solutions and impact.

Type 1 Science does not have all the answers either in the belief that efforts to achieve greater impact will come from previous and currently successful innovations and interventions by just scaling them up. More likely the underlying reason for unrealised development impact is due to failed assumptions.

More specifically, it is a failure to list, test and/or adapt the assumptions upon which the design and implementation of development programmes were based. Through simple, linear and mechanistic planning the interactions between political, social, economic, biophysical and ecological systems have been ignored. These systems are not only complex but also dynamic, diverse and unpredictable. It is enigmatic therefore that we attempt to use simple and single knowledge solutions to solve complicated and complex problems.

Lastly, the issue of “communications of science” came up repeatedly in the sessions. Here we must all remember that knowledge does not diminish just because it is shared, and we need to be careful that the science of agroforestry does not become a foreign sort of secrecy.'

Tony Simons

Tony Simons is the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He has worked 27 years on issues at the tropical agriculture/forestry interface, within the private sector (Shell Forestry); academia (University of Oxford); official development assistance (ODA/DFID); and research (CGIAR). He holds degrees from Massey University and Cambridge University, and an Honorary Professorship in Tropical Forestry at the University of Copenhagen, and has published over 100 research papers. Tony is passionate about the transformative change that the private sector can bring to development.

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