Making science useful to agriculture

Nov 26-29, 2018 | Adelaide, South Australia


The challenges for global agriculture in the next two decades are1: (1) for all at all times, abundant, affordable, healthy and nutritious food; (2) for farmers, comfortable stable incomes, in line with the rest of society, from sustainable farming with less drudgery; (3) for the non-farm environment, absence of encroachment and of contamination by farming; (4) for the rural communities, viable support and attractive landscapes; and (5) for the world, maintenance of non-agricultural biodiversity.


Meeting these challenges requires focused investment of scarce R&D resources, and managing the tension between formal economic evaluation of alternative investments and fostering ingenuity, serendipity and scientific entrepreneurship2. An implicit assumption in the assembly of R&D portfolios is that the underlying science is sound.


This workshop will discuss the investment of limited resources to R&D in agriculture, illustrate instances where reductionism, oversimplification or plain lack of rigour compromise the outcome of these investments, and highlight cases where genuine multidisciplinary research reduces the risk of misconstructed science.


Victor Sadras

1 Fischer, R. A. & Connor, D. J. Issues for cropping and agricultural science in the next 20 years. Field Crops Res. 222, 121–142 (2018).

2 Alston, J. M., Norton, G. W. & Pardey, P. G. Science under scarcity: principles and practice for agricultural research evaluation and priority setting.  (Cornell University Press, 1995).

Despite a compelling case for more investment, we see less.

Historically, technologies derived from ag R&D have increased agricultural productivity worldwide (Fischer et al., 2014; Fischer and Connor, 2018; Stewart and Lal, 2018). Investments in agR&Dhave typically delivered benefit-cost ratios of at least 10:1 (Alston et al., 2009; Hurley et al., 2014). Significant increases in ag R&D investment and better use of these funds are required to meet the challenges of global agriculture: a growing demand for healthy, nutritious, affordable food; adequate farmers’ income and welfare, and environmental protection in a context of scarcer land and water, and climate change (FAO, 2018; Fischer and Connor, 2018).

Despite a compelling case for more investment, we see less.

Here we outline an economic rationale to continue government involvement through support and policy ag R&D. We illustrate the substantive agricultural impact of science and technology, and reveal cases where oversimplification, reductionism (sensu Kauffman, 2008) and lack of rigor compromise returns on investment.

We conclude with high-level propositions for improved allocation of ag R&D resources.

Conference Program

November 26-29, 2018


Nov 26

Investing in R&D  
  • What is the state-of-the-art in the methods of funding allocation to R&D in agriculture? What makes successful research and what leads to waste and failure?
  • Comparison of different models and scales; state, national, international.
  • How to manage the trade-off between socially and economically sound investment requiring priority setting, and encouraging scientific entrepreneurship, creativity, serendipity and innovation?
  • IP issues in public/private research, help or hindrance.
  • How to manage the trade-off between collaboration and competition?
  • Peer-review of research funding proposals, pros and cons. How can it be improved?

Nov 27

Failure and success in crop improvement
  • Misconceptions in scientific research impacting the return of R&D investment; focus in breeding.
  • Critical comparison of “Gene-first” and “phenotype-first” models. Can we improve return from R&D investment with a more nuanced definition of phenotype?
  • Progress in plant breeding. state-of-the-art in quantifying genetic and environmental components of phenotypic variance. The role of models.
  • Avoiding expensive distractions in pre-breeding research and plant breeding – can we identify them?
  • Private plant breeding and global monopolies

Nov 28

Failure and success in agronomy
  • Misconceptions in scientific research impacting the return of R&D investment; focus in agronomy.
  • Critical comparison of production systems with emphasis on water and nutrients.
  • Avoiding expensive distractions in agronomy – can we identify them?
  • Genuine multidisciplinary research to avoid misconstructed science.
  • Peer-review and the role of journals setting agendas.
  • University drivers (ARC drivers, university rankings, overseas student recruitment, high-cits, H-indexes etc) on staff focus.

Nov 29

Integrating discussion
Outcomes of final discussion

  • CRP perspective
  • Survey of participants
  • Main findings of workshop: initial summary
  • Consolidated set of papers for proceedings
  • Single, multi-author paper

Key dates


5 October 2018

Extended abstracts

30 September 2018

(email to

Bio + picture

30 September 2018

(email to

Pedro Aphalo
Pedro Aphalo
M. Inés Mínguez
M. Inés Mínguez
Ford Denison
Ford Denison
Renee Lafitte
Renee Lafitte


Meet our participants

Where it’s at

University of Adelaide,
North Terrace Campus
Horace Lamb, Room 422


Thanks to our sponsors for their contribution to this event