Storming the ivory towers: Time for scientists to get out, ‘get social’, to learn better, faster–Nature commentary

Framework for building an evidence base on impacts of social learning

An evaluative framework for assembling an evidence base on the impacts of social learning. Figure 1 in Social learning and sustainable development, article by Patti Kristjanson, Blane Harvey, Marissa Van Epp and Philip Thornton, published in Nature Climate Change 4, 5–7 (2014) (first published online 20 Dec 2013).

Most of us like learning new things. But while learning alone is no fun, it’s hard to convince scientists, who spend their professional lives attempting to learn new things, to adopt ‘social learning’ approaches. These could help bring about new understandings, and help transform such understandings into development benefits, by helping scientists learn with, and from, a diverse group of stakeholders, including non-scientists, holding common purpose.

Those assumptions are held by social learning advocates, who include Patti Kristjanson, an agricultural economist at the World Agroforestry Centre and lead author of a commentary on social learning published in the 20 Dec 2013 online edition of Nature Climate Change. Kristjanson gives a main reason for the reluctance of her agricultural research colleagues to take up social learning. ‘First and foremost’, she says, ‘is the worry of scientists about the large transactions costs of the “many conversations and messy partnerships” such joint learning necessarily entails.’

‘Yet many of the same scientists also worry about the slow pace of agricultural development in many parts of the world’, Kristjanson says.

Those of us attempting to use science to help solve complex agriculturally related development problems—like how to help hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers adapt to harsher, more erratic, climates while producing more food and lifting themselves out of poverty—need to try new approaches. If we keep doing science the way we’ve always been doing it, we’re going to run out of time.’

This Nature Climate Change commentary includes a ‘call to action’.

Kristjanson and her colleagues say it’s time for climate change scientists to step up—to help effect a step change. ‘We need the “social engagement” of many, many more scientists working on climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. We need them to help us build a solid body of evidence on the benefits—and the costs—of applying social learning approaches.’

The commentary provides a framework that can be used to assess when social learning is likely to be ‘really worth it’ and begins with an introduction, summarized here:

Agricultural research-for-development bodies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, CGIAR and their partners are under mounting pressure from their funders to link their research knowledge to actions that achieve faster and more substantive and long-lasting ‘development outcomes’, such as CGIAR’s four ‘system-level outcomes’ of reduced rural poverty, increased food security, better nutrition and health, and sustainable management of natural resources. To bring about the many changes in behaviour, policies and institutions as well as agricultural practices needed to achieve such broad benefits, the authors argue that researchers and their projects need to be continuously informed by, and engaged with, many others, including the individuals and societies they are working to benefit, so as to better understand, and more effectively use, the processes by which people and communities, and policymakers and government officials, learn and adapt their behaviour in the face of climate and other changes and pressures.

Among the many advantages the authors cite of agricultural scientists employing social learning approaches are the following:

  • joint learning and knowledge sharing and co-creation are enhanced among diverse stakeholders around a common purpose
  • the established traditions of participatory development are built on, with learning and collective change placed at the heart of such engagement
  • diverse knowledge and value systems are integrated in ways that help us tackle so-called ‘wicked’ (highly complex) socio-agro-ecological problems

The Nature Climate Change commentary provides a table of examples of agricultural development projects and programs that are already using social learning approaches.

On the face of it, the authors says, social learning approaches should help research-for-development institutions become smarter and more effective. But while iterative learning processes appear to be critical to adapting to environmental and other big changes, it’s difficult to apply ‘learning tools’ in many developing-country situations, they say, where there is high uncertainty and great poverty. ‘And we have as yet little evidence of the impacts of social learning approaches on “hard” development outcomes’, says Kristjanson. Scientists are also concerned, she says, about a lack of demonstrated ability to replicate and scale out the benefits of localized social learning.

The authors of this commentary include Philip Thornton, an agricultural systems analyst and climate change specialist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Thornton says that the authors are embarking on a ‘systematic evidence-gathering initiative, using a common evaluative framework to track new initiatives from a range of institutional settings that incorporate social learning approaches’.

‘The practical guidelines we provide’, he says, ‘should help those interested in applying social learning approaches to use the best available knowledge, information and tools to implement and document their initiatives’.

Patti Kristjanson and Philip Thornton both lead work of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Program (CCAFS), where Kristjanson leads its Linking Knowledge to Action Theme and Thornton its Data & Tools ThemeCCAFS is funded by the CGIAR Fund, AusAid, Danish International Development Agency, Environment Canada, Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical (Portugal), Irish Aid, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, UK Aid, and the European Union, with technical support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

An authors’ version of this article is available for all to read on Cgspace.

Journal subscribers can read the whole article, Social learning and sustainable development, by Patti Kristjanson, Blane Harvey (International Development Research Centre, Canada), Marissa Van Epp (International Institute for Environment and Development, UK)) and Philip K Thornton, in Nature Climate Change 4, 5–7 (2014) doi:10.1038/nclimate2080 (first published online 20 Dec 2013).

A lively article about this Nature commentary was published by CCAFS yesterday (8 Jan 2014): Want sustainable development? Then it’s time to get social.

CCAFS, ILRI and their many partners invite you to join our efforts to create an evidence base on the impacts of social learning approaches. Leave your comments and ideas in the commentary section below or on the CCAFS website.

This Nature commentary article was produced as part of a continuing social learning process — see their wiki here: Climate Change and Social Learning initiative — in which knowledge is being co-constructed through many different channels. We are grateful and indebted to all who have participated in this process.

Experts meet to share tactics in fight against ‘goat plague’: Filmed highlights


Watch this short (3:50 minutes) film on the views of participants at a recent meeting to coordinate research strategies for a disease of small ruminants known as peste des petits ruminants, or PPR. This second meeting of the Global Peste de Petits Ruminants (PPR) Research Alliance, held 29–30 April 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya, brought together over 60 livestock experts from across the world.

The harm caused by PPR, also known as ‘goat plague’ because it is closely related to ‘cattle plague’, or rinderpest, has been increasing in recent years, especially across Africa and Asia. This infectious viral disease of sheep and goats poses a major threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. The disease is highly contagious, with roughly an 80 per cent mortality rate in acute cases.

‘We’re bringing together the relevant animal health experts so that we can find ways to better coordinate the diverse research on PPR, and determine the fastest and most effective and efficient ways to better control it in different developing-country regions and circumstances’, said Geoff Tooth, the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya.

The meeting was co-hosted by four institutions: the African Union-Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-ILRI Hub (BecA-ILRI Hub) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

A current AusAID-funded project being conducted by the BecA-ILRI Hub and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific, Industrial and Research Organisation (CSIRO) has supported development of a thermostable vaccine that is now being piloted in vaccination campaigns in Sudan and Uganda, with similar work proposed for Ethiopia.

Read more about efforts to develop a pan-African strategy to fight goat plague:

Alliance meeting this week to battle global ‘goat plague’

Northern Kenya August 2008

The PPR virus, commonly known as goat plague, swept across southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya in 2008; Mohammed Noor lost 20 goats in the just one week and wondered how he would provide for his family (photo on Flickr by EC/ECHO/Daniel Dickinson).

Assembling for two days this week (29–30 Apr 2013) in Nairobi, Kenya, are members of a global alliance against ‘peste des petits ruminants’, abbreviated as ‘PPR’ and also known as ‘goat plague’ and ‘ovine rinderpest’.

Co-hosting this second meeting of the Global Peste de Petits Ruminants (PPR) Research Alliance (hereafter referred to as GPRA) are the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is headquartered in Nairobi; the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-iLRI hub (BecA-ILRI Hub), hosted and managed by ILRI; the African Union-Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), also based in Nairobi; and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).

Among the 70 or so people attending are representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGFYi Cao), the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines (GALVMedBapti Dungu), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEAAdama Diallo), the Pan African Veterinary Vaccine Centre (PANVAC), the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London Vet School (RVC), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAOVincent Martin and Robert Allport, among others), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIEJemi Domenech and Walter Masiga) and a range of national research institutions from developing countries where the disease is endemic.

What’s this alliance all about?
The GPRA is a participant-owned network of researchers and development professionals with an interest in the progressive control of PPR. The GPRA was inaugurated in 2012 at a meeting in London. GPRA aims to provide scientific and technical knowledge towards methods for the detection, control and eradication of PPR that are economically viable, socially practical and environmentally friendly.

Why, and how much, does PPR matter?
Infectious diseases remain the major limitation to livestock production globally and are a particular scourge in the developing world, where most of the world’s livestock are raised. Diseases not only kill farm animals but also cause production losses and hinder access to potentially high-value international livestock markets.

PPR, an infectious viral disease of sheep and goats, poses a major threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa as well as the Middle East and India. The disease is highly contagious, and has roughly an 80 per cent mortality rate in acute cases.

The impacts of PPR, which is closely related to rinderpest in cattle, have been expanding in recent years. At least 15 million sheep and goats are at risk of death from the disease in Kenya alone and the estimated economic impact of current PPR outbreaks—including production losses and disease control costs for Africa—is more than US$147 million per year. A recent outbreak of PPR in the Marakwet and Baringo districts of Kenya destroyed more than 2000 herds, with the disease spreading in days and farmers losing some KShs6 million (about US$70,000)  to the disease over about three months.

PPR is probably the most important killer of small ruminant populations in affected areas and some 65 per cent of the global small ruminant population is at risk from PPR.

Increasing interest in tackling PPR
Over the last several years, international experts and national authorities have both been increasingly prioritizing the progressive control of PPR, with the first phase designed to contribute to the long-term goal of eradication. Donor interest in this research and development area quickly ramped up over the past year. A current AusAID-funded project being conducted under a partnership between the BecA-ILRI Hub and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific, Industrial and Research Organisation (CSIRO) has supported development of a thermostable vaccine now being piloted in vaccination campaigns in Sudan and Uganda, with similar work proposed for Ethiopia.

Collins Owino, ILRI research technician

Collins Owino, an ILRI research technician working on vaccines and diagnostics in the peste des petits ruminants (PPR) project (photo credit: ILRI/Evelyn Katingi).

Need for coordinated and progressive control of PPR
There is a growing recognition of the need for, and potential benefits of, a coordinated approach to the progressive control of PPR. The disease is now one of the high priorities of AU-IBAR, FAO and OIE, all of which have strong networks and expertise to offer the alliance. The role of the Global PPR Research Alliance as a network of research and development organizations is to develop a coordinated strategy to contribute to the progressive control of PPR.

The Australian Government, together with AU-IBAR and ILRI, is supporting the second meeting of the GPRA to advance with many other stakeholders progressive global control of PPR, particularly through collaborative research. The GPRA supports the sharing of relevant information and results, the establishment of productive working relationships among stakeholders, the establishment of research and development projects of interest to some or all members, and the closer linking of strategic plans of all stakeholders in better control of this disease.

Is progressive eradication of PPR possible?
Wide calls for PPR’s progressive global eradication cite the following factors supporting this goal:

  • The close relationship of PPR/’goat plague’ with the recently eradicated ‘cattle plague’ known as ‘rinderpest’ (rinderpest was only the second infectious disease, and the first veterinary disease, to be eradicated from the globe)
  • The availability of effective vaccines against PPR
  • The development of heat-stable PPR vaccines, following the same procedures that were so effective in developing a heat-stable rinderpest vaccine
  • The opportunity to increase focus on Africa and Asia’s small ruminants, which are of critical importance to the livelihoods of rural smallholder and pastoralist communities in many of the world’s poorest countries
  • The existence of vaccines and diagnostics considered sufficient to initiate the program; the current vaccines (based on the strain Nigeria 75/1) are safe, efficacious and provide life-long immunity.

More about the AusAID-funded PPR project at the BecA-ILRI Hub
The Australian Government via AusAID has funded development at ILRI of thermostable formulations of the PPR vaccine that provide a level of stability in the field as high as that demonstrated in the vaccine used to eradicate rinderpest. The project team has demonstrated that the PPR vaccine can be stored without refrigeration for extended periods of time without significant loss in viability. This is a crucial and significant success. Under the guidance of ILRI senior scientist Jeff Mariner and with the assistance of Australia’s CSIRO and BecA-ILRI Hub staff, the project team have developed strong links with AU-IBAR’s Henry Wamwayi, a senior member of his organization seconded to the PPR project.

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist Jeff Mariner at OIE meeting

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist Jeff Mariner presenting lessons learned from work to eradicate rinderpest at a meeting of the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) (photo credit: OIE).

Next steps
The project has built on lessons learned from the recent global eradication of rinderpest, which depended on two equally important breakthroughs for its success: development of an effective thermostable vaccine and effective vaccine delivery networks in remote as well as other regions. The next 12 months of the PPR research project will focus on testing the vaccine and delivery strategies in South Sudan and Uganda. Staff will assess in the field just how effective the vaccine is in controlling PPR infections. They’ll also investigate some practical incentives for encouraging livestock owners and livestock service delivery personnel to participation in PPR control programs. And they’ll look into ways to build and enhance public-private community partnerships to deliver the PPR vaccine.

Read more in the ILRI News Blog and science journals about the close connections between the eradication of rinderpest and this new battle against PPR—and the role of ILRI’s Jeff Mariner in development of thermostable vaccines necessary to win the battle against both diseases.

Rinderpest: Scourge of pastoralists defeated, at long last, by pastoralists, 18 Sep 2012.

New analysis in ‘Science’ tells how the world eradicated deadliest cattle plague from the face of the earth, 13 Sep 2012.

Goat plague next target of veterinary authorities now that cattle plague has been eradicated, 4 Jul 2011.

Deadly rinderpest virus today declared eradicated from the earth—’greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’, 28 Jun 2011.



Funders meet in Nairobi to align their vision and expectations for pro-poor biosciences research

Last week (13 Dec 2011), aid agencies that have funded Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub (BecA Hub), a shared state-of-the-art research and capacity building platform hosted and managed by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) for the region, convened an all-day meeting at ILRI’s Nairobi headquarters. The purpose of the meeting was to harmonize support being provided to BecA and African biosciences and to explore sustainable models for building on the momentum that BecA and its supporters have created.

BecA’s main donors and stakeholders represented at this meeting were the:

  • Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID)
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)
  • Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, which funded BecA in its beginnings)
  • New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)
  • Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

This donor alignment meeting came appropriately on the heels of a recent first meeting of the CEOs of both NEPAD, a program of the Africa Union celebrating its tenth anniversary, and ILRI, one of 16 centres belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), now celebrating 40 years of operation.

NEPAD’s Luke Mumba, who participated in the meeting, brought warm greetings from his CEO, Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, who had paid a recent first visit to ILRI and BecA and reported that NEPAD views BecA ‘as strategically important for affordable and accessible biosciences.’

‘BecA and NEPAD have a common vision to improve livelihoods of the poor,’ Mayaki said. ‘And NEPAD is now interested to play a bigger role in BecA’s programs, helping it to have even greater impact.’

ILRI director general Jimmy Smith thanked Mumba for his message and then framed the ensuing discussion in a talk and slide presentation. The following are excerpts from his talk.

Opening remarks by ILRI’s Jimmy Smith
‘The idea for a Biosciences eastern and Central Africa platform started when I worked for CIDA. It is an initiative I’ve supported since its inception. And I’ve been thinking about BecA since before I rejoined ILRI this November.

‘I liked BecA’s business plan but thought it lacked the “demand side”. I discussed this with Syngenta’s Marco Ferroni, and told him that it’s possible that different donors have different expectations of BecA. I want these to be aligned so that I can fulfill on them.

‘I’d like to frame our discussions today by providing first a bit of context.

Up until 2008 we all believed that food came from supermarkets. Then the world food market went topsy turvy. Prices rose and 100 million people were sent into poverty. Because prices for food were good for some poor farmers, 40 million people also rose out of poverty.

‘Since then, people are once again raising the old Malthusian theory—that massive geometric population growth in the face of arithmetic food growth is bound to lead to great social upheavals.

Here’s what we’re facing. There’ll be 2.5 billion more people by mid-century. We’ll need 70% more food produced to feed the additional population. Specifically, for example, we’ll need 1 billion more tonnes of cereal grains by 2050 for food, feed and biofuels. Most of the additional food will have to come from land already farmed.

‘And we are not starting from zero. There are already 1 billion people in the world who are hungry!

‘75% of people who are poor live in rural areas, but they are at the receiving end of investments of only 4% of official development assistance for agriculture.

‘Donor support to agriculture has fallen from 1980 to 2009. The trendline is inching upwards, but very slowly—and it is not matching the need.

‘In Africa, food production has been increasing but it still lags behind population growth. Africa has been meeting its food needs largely from importation, US$14-billion-worth of cereals each year. This is not sustainable. The continent cannot continue to spend so much on food if it is also going to invest sufficiently in other sectors, such as health and education.

‘The Ford and Rockefeller foundations together financed research that led to the ‘Green Revolution’. This was a group of donors, around a table, with a big vision, which was transformative. My question is, will the creation of BecA be as transformative as that of the Ford and Rockefeller vision was in the sixties? I think it could be.

What are the opportunities for BecA?
‘Every expert who has studied the food situation has said our best possibilities lie in the biotech sciences. People see biotech as a new frontier that has helped us in the past and can continue to do so in the future. We can now do things faster and with more precision. Look how quickly genomes can now be mapped.

This opportunity could be seized and be transformative again. Think if we could produce maize as efficiently as sorghum. What would happen to the maize belt in Africa? Can we create plants whose photosynthesis is more efficient? Can the native African Boran cow produce as much milk as the exotic Jersey?

‘The facility to conduct such science is brought to Africa through the BecA Hub at a scale that could have great impact. It is also here at a size that can greatly help build biosciences capacity on the continent. BecA Hub capacity can leverage the expertise of ILRI and the other centres of the CGIAR. It can catalyze and add value to the agenda of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme.

‘Challenges and questions remain. Can we, for example, develop an explicit agenda setting process that CAADP members will own and invest in? Can we transform our funding base to do transformative science working with CADPP, NARS, universities? Can we put in place an accountability framework that inspires confidence in our donors and partners? Can we bring about more harmonious relationships internally?’

View the slide presentation Jimmy Smith made: The BecA-ILRI Hub: Realizing the promise, 13 Dec 2011.

View a presentation ‘BecA hub research, facilities, and capacity building‘ by Jagger Harvey, Appolinaire Djikeng, and Rob Skilton