Delivering innovation from field to fork: Understanding the practical benefits arising from the translation of research and knowledge exchange
How can we ensure that the best use is made of both public and private investment in agri-food research?
BBSRC, together with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), commissioned RAND Europe to examine knowledge exchange and the translation of research, and the practical benefits arising from these activities, across the agriculture and food sectors, using the wheat supply chain as a model.
This is a summary of the report's main findings. We also outline how BBSRC and Defra are thinking about taking forward the evidence and methodology gained through the study.
Complexities of the wheat value chain
Information flow from field to fork
Motivations for translational research and knowledge exchange
Barriers to translation
About the report
The UK food and drink sector supports approximately 3.7 million jobs and accounts for around 7% of our national output. Food manufacturing is the UK's largest manufacturing sector (ref 1), and spending on food and groceries, estimated at £150Bn in 2010, is expected to reach nearly £183Bn by 2015 (ref 2).
From farming to food retailing, canteens and restaurants, businesses across this sector need to be innovative and evolve, for example to meet the changing demands of consumers and to cope with rising commodity prices.
UK wheat at a glance
- Around 15 million tonnes produced in the UK each year
- On nearly two million hectares
- With a value of around £1.2Bn
- 25% of the national crop is exported
- 40% is used in animal feed
- 10 million loaves of bread are produced each day
Research has an important role to play in helping the sector meet future demands and realise its potential. Wheat, for example, has a billion pounds market (see box), which UK expertise can exploit for growth. The UK has a strong presence internationally in research and precompetitive breeding of wheat traits for both food and other products but how can we ensure that this translates into practice?
Delivering innovation from research requires an understanding of the 'value chains' and the range of activities needed to bring a product or service from conception, through the different phases of production, to delivery to consumers.
Introducing knowledge at different steps along the value chain can lead to new ideas, new ways of doing things, new materials, each with the potential to add value. However, the complex, diverse and often fragmented nature of the supply chains in the agri-food sector means that it is difficult to understand the role of knowledge exchange and translational research in delivering innovative solutions.
In order to better understand how existing research findings can benefit the agri-food industry, BBSRC and Defra, working with the Government Office of Science Food Research Partnership, commissioned RAND Europe to analyse the range of knowledge exchange activities in the UK agriculture and food value chain, using wheat as a model.
The study sought to generate tools and insights into the translational research process, with a view to increasing innovation and improving UK productivity, not only in wheat and other commodity crops in the agri-food sector, but potentially across a number of business sectors.
"In agriculture, translational research is a process rather than a stage. We therefore use the term to describe the new scientific methods and technologies, interdisciplinary approaches, and collaborative institutional arrangements being developed to narrow the gap between basic science and its application to product and process innovation."
"Knowledge exchange can be defined as "the multi-directional flow of information of all kinds that is required as a basis for decision making in the translational research process (ref 3)."
The wheat value chain is representative of the agri-food sector in being highly diverse, complicated and often fragmented. Within the overall wheat market there are different quality grades, each with unique supply and demand conditions:
- For the animal feed sector, competitiveness on price is key. Feed wheat is a pure commodity product with little potential to add value
- For the food sector, quality is the dominant driver. Food processors demand wheat with consistent quality characteristics. But the fragmented nature of the supply chain means that quality can vary greatly and suitably priced imports may be favoured
- For biofuels, the need to provide evidence of sustainable supply is likely to become more important in the longer term, leading to less fragmentation and greater transparency
So when it comes to translational research and knowledge exchange, there are generic factors (activities, motivations and barriers) that can impact across the wheat value chain as a whole and other factors that affect the individual sub chains to different extents.
"The finding that face-to-face communication is considered the most important factor for knowledge exchange reflects the nature of knowledge that is required for effective translational research. Such knowledge often comprises tacit knowledge; it can only be effective when exchanged directly between actors."
The study found that, within the wheat value chain, information flows between a number of 'actors' (see diagram below). Each actor may take different roles at different times and across a wide range of activities including:
- Face-to-face interactions
- Business relationships
- Collaborative research
- Participation in conferences
- Selection panels/committees
- Field days or translation events
- Link with abroad
The study found that face-to-face interaction was by far the preferred mode of knowledge exchange in the UK wheat value chain, particularly among intermediaries and users.
Balancing the costs and benefits of investments of time and money in knowledge exchange and translational research requires consideration of the particular situation of the individuals or organisations involved. Face-to-face communications offer the opportunity for detailed discussion.
Observation of how and when actors interact with each other and in which research fields should enable us to understand how knowledge evolves in the value system, from an initial idea to an application as product or process. As part of their study, RAND Europe developed a matrix that showed actor/actor interactions and revealed patterns of knowledge exchange among different types of actors across the wheat value chain.
The methodology starts from general premises about value chains, knowledge exchange and translational research, supplemented by lists of relevant actors and fields of research, along with factors driving translational research and knowledge exchange decisions. Therefore, it allows for the characteristics of any sector to be taken into account and therefore can be widely applied to other fields and sectors beyond innovative wheat development.
One important use of the actors-activities matrix is to identify the areas that attract research activity as well as to distinguish active actors from less active ones. In addition, the actors-activity matrix can identify which fields of basic research are being further developed and which ones are receiving little attention.
"Not every player in the value chain considers translational research to be part of their core business, and each player will have different motivations at different times."
Understanding the motivations for different actors to engage in translational research (whether this is to add value, support the core business, monitor knowledge developments, or learn from others) is important to ensure support and intervention is targeted and appropriate.
The study found that for knowledge intermediaries and users the greatest motivation driving translational research was the need to overcome an identified and specific problem.
Knowledge users often turn to their trade associations and industry bodies when they identify a problem that is too difficult or generic and for which a collaborative approach to a solution would be most effective. However if the solution is likely to generate a competitive advantage, knowledge users prefer a confidential or exclusive approach and will either carry out research in-house or sub-contract it to knowledge intermediaries or knowledge producers with the relevant expertise and infrastructure.
Publicly funded programmes encouraging such dialogue and/or providing funds for stimulating translational research and knowledge exchange also play an important role.
"Numerous enablers and barriers at all levels can impact on the rate and direction of translational research and knowledge exchange. These may include market failures or they may be related to the way that organisations function within a sector, influenced by institutional and cultural norms. Indeed all of these factors seem relevant to this case study of wheat."
The report revealed a number of real and perceived barriers to translational research in the wheat value chains. Specific barriers include:
- The need for relevant skills to support translational research
- Different investment timescales between fundamental research and commercial applied R&D - emphasises the importance of pre-competitive research activity
- Differing translational 'cultures' along the value chain
Some of the other barriers identified can be classed as being perception rather than concrete obstacles to translation. For example, for some academic researchers there is a perception that research career structures inhibit knowledge exchange but the report found that industry end-users did not see this as a problem.
Communication was one specific area where it was clear that further work is required from all actors in the value chain. The disparate nature of the different sub-sectors within the wheat value chains - including food, animal feed and biofuels - means that efforts are needed to communicate potential knowledge exchange benefits across each area.
"Issues of communication also relate to the importance of keeping the end user in mind and the importance of involving key actors (and particularly growers) in translational research."
There are a number of factors that enable effective knowledge exchange and translational research. These can be harnessed to increase the effectiveness of activity and there is evidence of this already driving innovation across the wheat value chain.
The report found that by far the most important enabling factors for success are:
- Appropriate knowledge exchange fora
- A common understanding of the key actors to involve representing various actors in the value chain
- A focus on shared objectives and the problems to address
Another important enabler was a commitment to pre-competitive research, with competition and commercial secrecy acting as a barrier in this sector.
While funding is regarded as important for translational research and knowledge exchange, participants in the study suggested that the availability of additional funding is not the primary concern.
"A key theme of this report is the desire amongst actors in the wheat value chain for enhanced opportunities for direct intereraction."
The findings from this study provide insights into how knowledge exchange and translational research deliver innovation across value chains in the agriculture and food sector. The findings are of relevance to all providers, users and beneficiaries of knowledge and innovation in the agri-food sector, both public and private. BBSRC and Defra are keen to seek ways to enable this community to access, contribute to and further develop the skills and understanding needed for effective translation of research into practical application. The evidence base developed through the study forms a basis to test the relevance of the methodology on other value chains.
BBSRC delivers a portfolio of activities to support innovation. For example, training of industry specialists through Advance Training Partnerships and building strategic partnerships between academia and industry through research and technology clubs are addressing many of the barriers to knowledge exchange and translational research highlighted in this study. We intend to review this portfolio of mechanisms in light of study's key findings to ensure that we continue to contribute to enabling innovation and impact in the agriculture and food sector from excellent bioscience research, and are doing so in the most effective way.
BBSRC and Defra are co-funders in the Technology Strategy Board (TSB)-sponsored Sustainable Agriculture and Food (SAF) Innovation Platform, bringing government, business and researchers together to stimulate the development of new technologies and promote a thriving and environmentally sustainable food and farming sector. As members of the Food Research Partnership, chaired by the Chief Scientific Adviser, BBSRC and Defra are working with other Government knowledge generation funders to coordinate activities addressing the key challenges in agri-food research and innovation.
BBSRC and Defra are also members of Global Food Security (GFS), a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the Research Councils, Executive Agencies and Government Departments. Through GFS the partners are working together to support research to meet the challenge of providing the world's growing population with a sustainable, and secure supply of safe, nutritious and affordable high quality food from less land and with lower inputs.
Defra's investment in evidence and innovation includes: crop Genetic Improvement Networks (GINs), combining knowledge exchange with breeders and key stakeholders with accessible pre-breeding resources, to underpin collaborative and industry-led research; improved decision tools and better environmental management approaches for advisors and farmers; integrated control of pests, diseases and weeds (IPM); resilience to climate change; agricultural management in demonstration test catchments (with the Environment Agency) and improving water use and other resource use efficiencies and technology throughout the food chain. Knowledge resulting from these R&D activities is translated into practical advice by working with partners in collaborative projects, the Biosciences and Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB).
The report, translational research and knowledge exchange in agriculture and food production, was prepared by RAND Europe for BBSRC and Defra and presents the results of an analysis of translational research and knowledge exchange in the UK agricultural sector.
The study had a clear aim: to better understand how to assist the effective translation of research outcomes to practical application in the agriculture and food value chain.
The report uses wheat as an exemplar commodity but its findings are relevant to understanding other food crop value chains.
RAND Europe conducted the review by:
- undertaking a review of available literature
- developing a matrix of the players in the wheat value chain and the ways that they interact and exchange knowledge
- interviewing a significant number of key representatives from the players
- undertaking a validation workshop to ensure the robustness and validity of the findings
The full document is available at www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR986
- Food Matters, Cabinet Office report, 2008
- UK Grocery Retail Outlook: Opportunities Beyond 2010 report, IGD
- Business models and value systems for regenerative medicine therapies. Professor Joyce Tait ESRC INNOGEN Centre, TSB realise project 2010-2011