A well-run workshop is a great way to understand the current debates and concerns in a sector. I was delighted, therefore, to receive an invite from the Agricultural Industries Confederation to a workshop in Peterborough on knowledge exchange in farming on 23rd September.
The workshop brought some new perspectives about how our work on the Agri-Tech Strategy relates to other activities that are already encouraging innovation in the sector.
One of the main ideas behind the workshop was the difference between knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange. Knowledge transfer is one way – someone has a bright idea which then needs to find its way into practice. Knowledge exchange assumes that everybody in the supply chain – farmers, researchers, agronomists, suppliers - has valuable knowledge and experience; the flow of knowledge is much more multi-track than the idea of knowledge transfer would allow.
The workshop started with group discussions on mapping knowledge/information flows. This provoked a good discussion in the group I joined which had agronomists, academics and other experts. This was so absorbing that our facilitator forgot to write anything down so we had a bit of a scramble at the end of the session. Later, after some scene setting presentations, there were more group discussions to identify ways of improving knowledge exchange helped by contributions on the challenge of knowledge exchange from an illustrious panel from Newcastle University, Innovate UK, Rothamsted, HL Hutchinsons, Syngenta and AICC.
One theme that came up several times was that the link between commercial research and the farmer worked satisfactorily because there are commercial or contractual reasons for that to happen. However, there were issues with public sector research. Some people thought that that the gap between farmers and researchers had got wider in recent years. Others thought that there were some signs of improvement. There were already positive changes in the way that Research Councils and institutes were already trying to engage with farmers. The Agri-Tech Strategy is about joining up academics and farming businesses. Some people thought that the Centres for Agricultural Innovation that are being set up under the Strategy should have knowledge exchange built into how they operate. And the good news is knowledge exchange is one of the requirements. Our vision is that scientists, farmers, growers and others in the food supply chain exchange information, provide insight into current problems, contribute to the Centre’s overall direction, and identifying commercial opportunities.
There was also much discussion about involving farmers in commissioning research and the role of levy boards both in terms of their efforts to ensure the research they support is relevant and in involving them in prioritising research.
For me the main benefit of the workshop was that it improved my understanding of the contributions that different types of organisations make to knowledge exchange and the challenges that each faces in doing so.
Sean Ryan, Agri-Tech Strategy, Defra