Effective research needs more than participatory priority setting
Keywords:  Participatory approaches; Policies/Programmes.
Correct citation: nn. (1997), "Editorial: Effective research needs more than participatory priority setting." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 31, p. 2­3. 

In recent years, participatory priority setting exercises have become fashionable among several international biotechnology research initiatives. The Cassava Biotechnology Network (CBN), for example, consulted Tanzanian and Colombia farmers regarding their main needs and preferences related to cassava varieties; and the Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS) has arranged regional meetings on priority setting in agrobiotechnology research. In this Monitor issue, attention is paid to two other organizations: priority setting at the International Potato Institute (CIP) and the Special Programme on Biotechnology of Directorate General for International Cooperation (DGIS) in Colombia, India, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

The basis for this new wave of priority setting exercises is the critical evaluation of effectiveness and efficiency of agricultural research. The low adoption of many agricultural technologies is one of the arguments behind decreasing public research budgets, from which agricultural research can only protect itself by increasing effectiveness. Participatory priority setting is also likely to fit into the current trend of increased commercialization in public research in many industrialized and developing countries. The success of the increased market orientation will mainly depend on knowing the effective demands of farmers as well.

'Client-oriented' research, in most countries, requires new relationships between researchers, users and government. Including new parties, such as non-governmental organizations, could be considered to facilitate the communication between these groups. Participatory priority setting can help to establish such new relationships since researchers and end-users start a dialogue at the minimum. However, participatory priority setting can only be part of such a relationship, never a substitute for it. Usually, priority setting is a starting phase in an innovation process, subsequently followed by technology development, evaluation and distribution.
Finding a consensus among the conflicting interests of the involved parties is probably the greatest challenge of participatory priority setting. Governments, who usually allocate the research budget, represent the national interests. Not all groups within societies are equally successful in translating their positions into national interests. Scientists, who carry out the research, usually value more highly the academic merits of their research than its practical applications. Finally, the farmers, the clients of research, are not interested in the research or biotechnology per se, but in the effectiveness of its outcome. If the results do not fulfil their expectations, naturally they will not feel committed to using them.

The popularity of participatory priority setting in biotechnology research is somewhat surprising considering the very few examples of participatory priority setting leading to better research results or higher adoption by farmers. This is simply because most of the initiatives are still in an initial phase. Subsequently, they will have to face the problem of how to translate priorities into concrete research projects. Whether participatory priority setting will result in real differences in the research agendas, or just in a continuation of merely the same research with a more elaborated problem definition, still remains to be seen. The outcomes of the current initiatives are likely to depend to a large extent on the degree of participation during the subsequent phases in the innovation process.

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