PKR Nair, one of the world’s most respected scientists in the field of agroforestry or trees on farms, has charged his scientific peers with not producing the best science.
Speaking at the World Congress on Agroforestry in New Delhi, India, Nair claimed that the material he’d seen presented at the Congress of around 1000 researchers wasn’t innovative, wasn’t reporting failures, wasn’t sufficiently rigorous and was urging a rush towards wide-scale commercialization of agroforestry without sufficient evidence to support it.
“We’ve heard how agroforestry can do this, can do that. That agroforestry has so much potential, many advantages, offers many opportunities… and so on and on… But how much of what is being said is new?” he asked in his keynote address on the morning of Wednesday 12 February.
Nair, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida, considered that much of what was presented at the Congress wasn’t sufficiently rigorous. ‘It’s all very well to have our opinions but they must be based on fact. How many of the 200-plus presentations at this Congress are based on opinion versus facts? How many new hypotheses have been proposed? How many papers with results that can be replicated? And how many negative results have been presented?’
The co-editor of the 2012 landmark text, Agroforestry: the future of global land use, further claimed that an intellectual crisis was assailing the research community. “Where are the breakthroughs and innovations being hailed at this Congress? All we are hearing is what we already know. And even that is basic stuff. Is this a sign that we are facing intellectual bankruptcy? Is there nothing left to learn?”
Not content with criticizing the research credentials of his peers, Nair went on to note that there was an unseemly rush to push large-scale commercialization of agroforestry despite there not being enough evidence to support it nor sufficient study done on the potential negative effects. “We shouldn’t forget that the Green Revolution became the Greed Revolution,” he said.
Ravi Prabhu, the deputy director-general of research at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), one of the co-organizers of the congress, replied that, “I respect Professor Nair’s observations and opinion. It is an important role, that of critical challenger, especially in the sciences.”
“But the fact is that no gathering will produce 100% new material. And the presentation of basic research is important for younger researchers to understand the tenets of the science. Indeed, one of the most critical functions of this event is to bring together researchers of all stages of career from all over the world to discuss the complexities of research into agroforestry systems. It is through events like this that we help build the next generation of scientists.”
Commercialization, argued Prabhu, was nothing new and hardly constituted an unholy alliance that was rushing headlong to disaster. Rather, the discussions at the congress between scientists and business leaders all revolved around how best to ensure that environmental and social goals could be met along with economic ones.
“We’re witnessing the birth of a new way of doing business with local communities thanks to our partnerships with these companies,” he said.
“Together, we are carefully exploring new ways of protecting the environment through financial incentives and helping to bring millions out of poverty. The business people we talk with acknowledge that mistakes have been made in the past. They want to avoid them in their own businesses. They agree that the way to do this is to work collaboratively with local communities rather than imposing large-scale ‘solutions’ from above.”
Prabhu has previously gone on the record saying that the World Agroforestry Centre is an organization “where focused, rigorous research provides the evidence that guides the policies of decision makers from the household through to national and global levels: the kind of decisions that help to direct investments to their most useful purposes.”
In the world of science, disagreements such as this are basic to getting to the truth. They provoke researchers to more fervently find new ways to solve humanity’s pressing problems.
By Robert Finlayson
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