‘Nothing new here’ says renowned researcher

PKR Nair at WCA2014. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

PKR Nair at WCA2014. Photo by Robert Finlayson/ICRAF

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

Follow the Congress on Twitter #WCA2014 for live updates!

4 People have left comments on this post

» DAYANANDA said: { Feb 12, 2014 - 10:02:50 }

“Need new findings”

It is true that farming community especially (SMALL & MARGINAL Farmers) facing lot of problems at all level (Production, Operational, Marketing etc.). In these difficulties, Agroforestry Scientist/ Researchers should address there research findings in inclusive way for adoption of their research findings at Farm level.

Much more genetics research needed to address Economic value of the Forest trees.

Research Scientist take note on these issues and need much Research works towards betterment of farming community and sustainable farming principles to provide food, fodder, fibre and fuel to world population and for next generation without compromising nearby and long term climate challenges.

» DAYANANDA said: { Feb 12, 2014 - 10:02:55 }

Opportunity is always open to all researchers with a new Problems and to replace old solution by new solution.
best of luck for all Researchers/ Scientists for much more research on agroforestry.

» Robert V. Bishop said: { Feb 13, 2014 - 10:02:52 }

I passionately agree with Dr. Nairs points mentioned in the Forum’s news.

I resent and protest author’s phrase referring about Dr. Nair: “Not content with criticizing the research credentials of his peers,” as this connotes/implies Dr. Nair is a mal-content prone to criticizing. I have found Dr. Nair a most professional gentlemen, moreover a pioneer in the advancement of agroforestry.

I found unsettling Dr. Ravi Prabhu ‘pooh-pooh’ing of Dr. Niars points. There is an old adage: pooh-poohs come from pooh-bahs. I hope the adage does not fit in this instance.

» Rajendra Prasad said: { Feb 15, 2014 - 09:02:08 }

I think, if scientific community as a whole and advocates of agroforestry in particular, take the words of Dr Nair in right perspective and in right spirit then the issue becomes incontrovertible. The comments are purposeful and to caution the researchers to be careful in harnessing benefits of AF balancing pros and cons. The remark “Nothing New” does not mean voidance but short of expectations. As chairperson of Session 2.2 Tropical homegardens – Multifunctionality and benefits on 10th Feb 2014, in his closing remarks while expressing his appreciation on quality of presentations made, Dr Nair offered to help the presenters of oral and poster papers (in his session as well as in other sessions on related topics) to publish their papers in scientific publications. It shows that Dr Nair was not unconventional but had concerns for research pathways and interest of those who are eagerly looking towards AF as panacea. In India and other parts of the world AF is making headways on large areas and expected to contribute to save humanity from ill effects of climate change. To deliver site specific appropriate AF interventions based on footpad of scientific data, 37 Centers of All India Coordinated Research Project on AF ( AICRP AF) headquartered at National Research Centre for Agroforestry, Jhansi India are making earnest efforts. Likewise, researchers are trying to provide reasons to AF benefits in others countries also. May be, because of skewed selection of oral presentations and constrained participation, all innovative efforts could not become part of the congress. The critical comments of Dr Nair are suggestive of quality and fruitful research. Instead of responding and feeling bad, we researchers are supposed to stride for good science.

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