Scientists in interaction: ‘Follow-the-innovation’ research generates outcome

February 02, 2011.  

‘Implementation-oriented’ research is the magic word in the world of science. But how does it function? And is it really the role of science to make sure that its outcome is actually implemented?


“This depends of course on the perspective of the scientists involved”, explains Mehmood Ul Hassan, a Senior Researcher at ZEF involved in the ZEF/UNESCO project in Uzbekistan on the improvement of the use of natural, social and economic resources. “But if you want to conduct research in an inter and transdisciplinary way, you have to go beyond doing pure disciplinary science and produce results and publications only. Involving stakeholders, what transdisciplinary research is about, requires looking at their circumstances and specific needs regarding scientific outcome”.


FTI - a learning process

Having a closer look at how scientific results can be best adapted and implemented for the actual users is what the so-called ‘FTI’ - which stands for ‘Follow-the-innovation’- research group within the ZEF/UNESCO project has been doing for the past three years. Based on actual research findings and outcome achieved by natural, economic and social scientists involved in the project, a group of social scientists, Peter Mollinga, Anna-Katharina Hornidge, and Mehmood Ul Hassan took the lead in conceiving and developing the FTI process.

Scientists from different disciplines identified four areas where implementation was to follow science-based solutions for the development-related problems in the region. The four areas identified for the FTI process were: improving the functioning of Water User Associations; rapid salinity mapping; conservation agriculture and afforestation of marginal lands. Each of these topics was covered by an interdisciplinary team, including social and natural scientists as well as economists. They worked together with ‘user groups’, on the local and field level (e.g. farmers), middle level such as farmer associations and water user groups up to the top level of policy and decision makers such as the local governor (hakim) and national Parliamentary committees.


This was an intensive process of interaction amongst scientists from several disciplines, with practitioners, as well as with users and policy makers. To conclude this process for the current phase of the project, the scientists involved in the FTI process came together at ZEF in Bonn in January 2011 to discuss, summarize and analyze their results. Even the writing exercise (called ‘write-shop’) leading to scientific reports and journal articles (after all this is still a scientific effort) was performed in a one-week group session with simultaneous writing and discussing.


Implementation-oriented research

“The main message of the whole FTI process is that developing an innovation doesn’t automatically result in improvement of livelihoods in the project area because most innovations never proceed beyond shelves and journals. Scientists generally assume a lot, but their assumptions do not always fit reality”, concludes Hassan after the write-workshop at ZEF. “Another conclusion is, that to mention interdisciplinary as an overall goal of a research project is not enough. If it is formulated in a general way it is everybody’s business, and therefore in the end it’s nobody’s business. Each scientist continues doing his or her own research in his or her field of specialization. And, above all, we could see in the FTI process, that we are all part of our own science culture. For a classical natural scientist, working with farmers is basically not a scientific effort. Thus, the FTI approach was and is not only an innovative way of accompanying science into action, but is also an interdisciplinary exercise of scientific analysis for the scientists involved.”

Scientists tell about their experiences


This conclusion was partly confirmed during interviews with the four lead authors involved in the write-shop at ZEF. “It took me quite some time to understand what the whole FTI thing was about”, admits Akmal Akramkhanov, a natural scientist who leads the team on salinity mapping. “On the other hand, I had to deal with farmers and institutions, that didn’t really see the benefit of the scientific solutions we offered to them. I learned a lot”, he says smiling. “We had Uzbek colleagues in our group, who had never worked directly with farmers before”, relates Elena Kan, the lead author of the afforestation group. “It was a new and rewarding experience for them”, she adds.


However, FTI is more than following an innovation - it is rather coaching the scientists and supporting the user groups during the implementation process, since they are the ones for whom the innovation was developed in the first place. “We did a lot of empowering people to find own solutions”, says Nodir Djanibekov, an economist leading the working group on the functioning of Water User Associations. “During the discussion on the strenthening of the WUA, its staff came up with the idea to rely on seasonal labor to be more efficient at this stage instead of doing it the traditional way by relying on permanent workers.”


“Introducing conservation agriculture to a group of farmers from different cooperating Water User Associations was such a successful exercise, that in fact we cannot meet demands by the users by now”, tells Inna Rudenko, an economist in charge of the FTI group working on conservation agriculture. “We have been working with a group of selected farmers since 2003, and they have been benefiting not only from the equipment but also from training and information we provided such as our science briefs (ZURs) on specific project outcome. We are now in the phase of ‘Spread-the-innovation’ and the interest of farmers is overwhelming. We have a lack of FTI-specialists and of equipment. Founding an own NGO, KRASS, helps in this phase of actual implementation and diffusion. We also have to create an “enabling” environment by convincing policy makers on the higher levels of the benefits we are producing with and for the local people – that’s why we do a lot of lobby work too”, adds Rudenko.


Creating perspectives

“In the end, the FTI experience was new for all involved: for ZEF and its scientists, and for our counterparts in Uzbekistan. The FTI process and output has received very positive reactions by Uzbek institutions so far, and it has contributed to the capacity building effort in the project region. We also hope that KRASS, an NGO founded by project members, will support the implemention of research results in an FTI style, by supporting user groups in terms of implementing science-based outcome and seeking political acceptance and financial support by higher political levels and donors. In this regard, the whole FTI experience can function as a role model for other transdisciplinary projects. Analyzing the FTI experience through trans and interdisciplinary lenses can contribute to what is called the science of team science”, concludes Hassan.


The lead authors of the four main research areas (‘innovation packages’) of the Follow-the-Innovation process in the ZEF/UNESCO project in Uzbekistan have met at ZEF in January 2011 to discuss, summarize and analyze their results. This so-called ‘write-shop’, resulting in scientific reports and journal articles, was performed in a one-week group session with simultaneous writing and discussing under the lead of ZEF Senior Researchers Mehmood Ul Hassan and Anna-Katharina Hornidge. The four lead authors are Inna Rudenko (Conservation agriculture), Nodir Djanibekov (Water User Association), Akmal Akramkhanov (Salinity mapping) and Elena Kan (Afforestation on marginal land).



Alma van der Veen