Aberystwyth academic calls for more investment in agriculture science research

04 November 2016

Aberystwyth University Professor of Economics Peter Midmore has called for more investment in agricultural science research.

Professor Midmore was speaking at an international conference on agricultural science in Europe held today, 4th November, at the headquarters of the FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in Rome.

The conference heard that public funding of agricultural science results in strong social benefits.

“Research is crucial to help farming in Europe meet major challenges as food price volatility, climate change, and pressure on land to produce non-food crops as biofuels,”  said Ren Wang, FAO's Assistant Director General for Agriculture.

The European Union (EU) is spending almost €4 billion in its current Horizon 2020 scientific research programme to respond to these challenges, but while the EU's expenditures are on the rise, national governments in Europe are mostly cutting them.

“The net result is less spending, while the need for it is increasing,” said Prof Midmore.

For the past three years Professor Midmore has coordinated a project called IMPRESA to investigate the effectiveness of public spending on farm businesses, the natural environment and rural communities.

In 20 countries surveyed, eight increased agricultural research expenditure between 2008 and 2013, seven decreased and five held spending broadly constant.

IMPRESA traced the impact of science in concrete cases of research applied in European agriculture.

Olive growers in Canino, Italy have significantly reduced pesticide use with Integrated Pest Management. Bulgarian scientists developed a medicine against a major cause of bee mortality. And in Germany, optical sensors helps farmers optimise their use of fertiliser.

IMPRESA concludes that public funding of agricultural science results in strong social benefits, which could not be achieved by private companies.

Compared with the USA and other countries internationally, the payback to agricultural research in Europe is slightly lower although the impacts are felt more quickly. This is due to the more applied nature of its agricultural science. 

The project also sets out ways in which the impact of research can be improved.

Regarding science as part of an innovation system, and getting scientists to embrace a “culture of impact”, would mean that more opportunities to achieve wider and better impacts could be obtained.

Working with private companies, government-funded science can be better focused on meeting social needs. But a balance needs to be struck between collaboration, which is beneficial, and subsidising private research activity.

Finally, IMPRESA recommends more complete and rigorous record keeping of research activities to better track their impact because it often occurs long after the initial science was developed.

“The time it takes for research to have its full impact is often longer than a scientist’s career cycle,” said Prof Midmore.

“For that reason, while spending on monitoring is only a very small proportion of the overall resources devoted to research projects and programmes, it is the essential ingredient that ensures that public investment in science is taken full advantage of,” he added.

The IMPRESA project is funded by the European Commission under its Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for Research and Development.

It is a three-year project which concludes 31/12/2016. Led by Aberystwyth University, it includes eight other partners from six countries. Two partners are international organisations, FAO and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre based in Seville.