Has the ‘impact agenda’ helped agronomy – or harmed it?


by John Thompson
Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

Every agronomist or agricultural research institute with an interest in international development, and who has applied for a research grant in the last 15 years, will have had to develop and justify a theory of change, and identify outcomes, anticipated impacts, measurable indicators and impact pathways.

These tasks have become an obligatory part of agricultural research design and planning. The resulting theories, claims, indicators and pathways are supposed to be useful in assessing, monitoring, reporting on and evaluating the research investment.

In this context there are three questions that deserve attention:

  • First, where did research funders’ interest in theory of change and impact pathways come from?
  • Second, what is the evidence that the focus on them has improved the quality (or relevance, productivity, effectiveness, or any other dimension) of agronomic research?
  • And third, what unanticipated consequences might this focus be having on the culture of publically funded, development-oriented agronomic research?

Each of these questions warrants careful consideration, and would provide starting points for fascinating PhD research. While we wait for these PhDs candidates to come forward, some initial thoughts and speculation will have to suffice.

Value for money

It was the “new public management” agenda that fundamentally changed the terms of trade around publically funded agricultural research. In general, those promoting this agenda saw state institutions as bloated and inefficient, in need of the discipline of the market and higher levels of accountability. Targets, and measurement against them, were the means of assuring accountability. For agricultural research, the new focus on results and accountability resonated with images of boffins and ivory towers, narratives about research “for its own sake”, and the suggestion that agricultural researchers were part of elites who were out of touch with rural reality.

Forcing researchers to be explicit – about what would be done and delivered; how research results would move from lab to farm; what types and levels of impact would be achieved; how many people would be brought out of poverty or made more food secure – held the key to accountability, “value for money” and guaranteed impact.

The international agricultural research community’s embrace of terms like “agricultural research for development” (AR4D) can be seen as a deep bow toward the god of new public management. The clear implication was that before the advent of AR4D, agricultural research was undertaken for some other misguided, wasteful or irrelevant purpose(s). One suspects that this suggestion would come as a great surprise to the generation of agricultural researchers who developed the rice, wheat and maize varieties, and the accompanying management regimes, that helped to power the Green Revolution.

Where is the evidence?

So, do the acts of developing a theory of change, articulating impact pathways and measuring outcomes and impacts against targets make for better – more relevant, effective, efficient – development-oriented agricultural research?

Oddly, there are no studies that have sought to address this question. Either research funders have no need of evidence; or perhaps forcing researchers to go through the motions serves some other purpose altogether (like providing cover vis-à-vis the funders’ respective ministries, national parliaments or trustees).

A risk averse culture?

Now we come to the question of unintended consequences on the culture of agronomic research. Again there is a lack of systematic analysis. However, logic and some anecdotal evidence might suggest that the need to pre-specify outcomes and impacts, and to do so at a suitably impressive scale, is indeed having consequences. What might these be? Risk aversion, short-termism, managerialism and inflated impact claims come immediately to mind.

If this is the case, it does not bode well for the future. Research without risk, creativity or failure – or a clear acknowledgement that it is fundamentally a step into the unknown – is unlikely to yield the agronomic knowledge, innovation and technology that will undoubtedly be needed in the coming decades.

The conference Contested Agronomy: Dynamics, Cases & Implications is on 23-25 February 2016 at the Institute of Development Studies, UK. The call for panels, papers and expressions of interest is open until 11 May 2015.

Image: k5652-18 by usdagov on Flickr (cc-by 2.0)