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Increased Accountabilty will drive the Extension of Research Findings

Amabel Fulton

Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research, Launceston, Tasmania
EmaiL:
Amabel.Fulton@utas.edu.au

Introduction

The separation of agricultural research from extension in Tasmania four years ago led to strong calls from APEN Tasmania for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure the adoption of research outcomes by industry. This article reports on the progress of the Tasmanian research sector towards achieving this goal. After a brief description of the research and extension structures in Tasmania, the paper describes the current approach used by the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research (TIAR) to achieve the adoption of research findings. Improvements to the current model are suggested, followed by the implications of the Tasmanian approach for Australian public and private sector extension in the next 10 years.

Background

In May 1997, the Tasmanian State government entered into a joint venture with the University of Tasmania to form the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research (TIAR). This brought together the research arms of two organisations – the Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment (DPIWE), and the School of Agricultural Science (SAS). The role of extension was retained by the DPIWE, and the University retained the role of teaching agricultural science. The Institute now employs about 60 researchers and research assistants at four centres around the State. They work in six major industry research programs: vegetables; perennial horticulture; cereals and grain legumes; dairy; wool; and meat and grazing.

From the outset, the demarcation between TIAR and the DPIWE was clear – TIAR was to conduct research (and not extension), and DPIWE was to undertake extension (and not research). There was a mutual agreement at the time that each would respect the other’s ‘turf’. In addition, there was an unwritten understanding that the DPIWE would have the responsibility of extending the outcomes of TIAR’s research. Over time, however, the DPIWE has developed its own imperatives distinct from the TIAR research program. These often do not coincide with the extension of particular TIAR research findings. This has acted to prevent TIAR from undertaking extension and from taking responsibility for adoption of research findings.

TIAR’s mission is "To undertake well-targeted, cost-effective, innovative and responsive research and development (R&D) in order to establish, maintain and further develop agricultural industries in a sustainable manner." Although it is not an extension organisation, one of its goals is to "ensure widespread scientific, industry and stakeholder recognition and adoption of R&D findings." This goal is in line with TIAR’s primary focus on applied agricultural research for state benefit.

How does TIAR achieve recognition and adoption of R&D findings?

To achieve recognition and adoption of R&D findings, a number of approaches have been taken. These include:

  1. Doing the right research
  2. Collaborative research planning, incorporating an extension plan
  3. Continuous monitoring of client satisfaction throughout the project life, and responding to client feedback
  4. Communication of research outcomes, and where appropriate, facilitation of extension of research outcomes.

These are covered in more detail below.

  1. Doing the right research
    A strong emphasis is placed on doing the ‘right’ research from the outset. This is considered to be research which will make a difference to the future of the State, and which has the support of industry and funding bodies. To ensure the ‘right’ research is undertaken, TIAR has an independent Board to oversee the research program charged with the role of monitoring outputs and evaluating the return on research investment. This has increased the accountability of the research organisation, particularly to its State Government funders.

    Another key to doing the right research is only undertaking research that industry wants undertaken. This is determined either by industry endorsement of research proposals, or by only undertaking research on a user-pays principle. Where research is undertaken without external funding (and very little of this occurs), this is a result of strong local industry demand for the research combined with a demonstrated lack of alternative funding support.

    The process of industry endorsement of research proposal takes place through the Agricultural Research and Advisory Committees (ARACs). Each year these committees of farmers and industry stakeholders identify key research priorities for their industry and call for preliminary proposals in line with these priorities. Preliminary proposals are reviewed, and TIAR researchers are only allowed to formally submit proposals that receive endorsement from the relevant ARAC. Rejected preliminary proposals cannot be submitted through TIAR.
  2. Collaborative research planning, incorporating an extension plan
    Long before a project is submitted for endorsement by the relevant ARAC, researchers are encouraged to work collaboratively with all stakeholders to develop the preliminary proposal. These stakeholders include relevant extension providers (public and private), agribusinesses, farmers and other researchers. After approval by the ARAC, researchers are again encouraged to work with the stakeholder group to develop the final proposal. A number of the ARACs require that researchers incorporate an extension plan in their research proposal, as do some of the funding bodies. Advice on the development of extension components is available to scientists from the institute’s Rural Sociologist. At present, however, the requirements for extension planning are minimal, and funding bodies do not appear to evaluate nor hold researchers accountable for their extension component.
  3. Continuous monitoring of client satisfaction throughout the project life, and responding to client feedback
    During the research process, researchers are encouraged to continue to involve and communicate with stakeholders, obtaining regular structured feedback regularly using simple evaluation tools. Researchers are encouraged to respond to the needs of clients by modifying their research plan in accordance with their results, and industry feedback.
  4. Communication of research outcomes, and where appropriate, facilitation of extension of research outcomes.
    When developing an extension component to the research project, researchers are encouraged to identify the type of extension that is appropriate. This is usually dependent on the nature of the project. A ‘basic’ research program usually requires a project communication plan; an ‘applied’ research program requires this and key informant extension; and an ‘extension’ program (which may follow on from a research program), requires both of these and broad scale extension to the wider target audience.

The project communication plan involves keeping the funding body and key stakeholders informed of project progress, and reporting on findings in the media, publications, and at formal functions such as workshops and conferences. Where a key informant extension plan is deemed appropriate, researchers are encouraged to focus on key informants as their target audience; and to support the integration of research findings into existing education and training programs. Where broad-scale extension is considered appropriate, this is contracted out to the relevant extension specialists at the expense of the same, or another, funding body. All the principles that apply to good scientific research planning are applied to extension planning.

To what extent is TIAR achieving recognition and adoption of research findings?

While one of the roles of the TIAR Board is to monitor R&D outputs and evaluate the return on investment, TIAR does not undertake formal evaluation of the impact of its research. While there has been some discussion of the need for this, some consider it a diversion of funds away from research, and therefore away from core business. While some cite a widespread adoption of research findings, some people in industry talk about ‘all this research in filing cabinets that hasn’t got out to farmers’. However, until the actual recognition and adoption of research findings is evaluated, TIAR cannot be sure what is working, what is not, and why.

Where research findings do appear to be being adopted:

  • there are close relationships between scientists and industry,
  • the industry is small (or well organised, for example, a contracting firm)
  • the industry is interested in the research results, and
  • the scientist is interested in results being adopted.

Examples of successful projects include a social and technical project examining flystrike in sheep. This has involved ongoing visits to 50 farm businesses over a three-year period, resulting in dramatic changes in knowledge, skill, attitudes and practices. Research into the conversion of the pyrethrum industry from a vegetative to a seed-based crop resulted in adoption of findings prior to their publication. A research project looking at barriers to farm forestry in North East Tasmania resulted in North Forest Products making significant changes to its approach to dealing with the farming community.

What could TIAR do to improve recognition and adoption of research findings?

The key action that TIAR could take to improve the adoption of research findings would be to seek and accept responsibility for facilitating (not necessarily ‘doing’) this task. Once the organisation became committed to this task, there would be potential for TIAR to improve recognition and adoption of research findings by improving in each of the four areas outlined above:

1. Doing the right research

o Focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what 'could' be done

o Better informed ARAC and Board decision-making based on preliminary studies, literature reviews and feasibility studies

o Closer relationships with industry during the project development phase

2. Collaborative research planning, incorporating an extension plan

o Improved partnerships between extension and research providers from the research initiation phase

o Extension components need to be funded, and they may need to be funded separately to extension but concurrently with it

3. Continuous monitoring of client satisfaction throughout the project life, and responding to client feedback

o Use structured evaluation to monitor progress, rather than rely on ad hoc feedback

4. Communication of research outcomes, and where appropriate, facilitation of extension of research outcomes.

o Funders need to require and reward projects that incorporate an extension component, otherwise scientists won’t take it seriously

o Development of extension projects in partnership with extension providers

What are the implications of these approaches for Australian public and private sector extension in the next ten years?

The creation of the TIAR has resulted in a research organisation which is more accountable than most agricultural R&D organisations in Australia. This trend towards increased accountability will have profound impacts for extension in Australia over the next 10 years. Until the research system is truly accountable – in terms of outcomes, not outputs – adoption of research findings will only occur by good fortune, or through the efforts of exceptional individuals. Increased accountability would lead to evaluation of impacts; rewarding scientists on the basis of outcomes rather than outputs; identification of highest return research investments; increased R&D funding allocated to extension; and the need for improved partnerships between research and extension providers, both public and private.

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