ASTI in retrospect: New series of ASTI program notes


August 21, 2020

2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the inception of the Agricultural Science & Technology Indicators initiative (ASTI). During this time, governments, donors, and international organizations have used ASTI’s evidence to guide agricultural research investment and policy decisions, to assess areas of underinvestment, to identify capacity gaps and training needs, and to demonstrate the returns to agricultural research investment. A new series of ASTI notes marks this important milestone by focusing on—and updating—some of the key advancements and insights ASTI data have enabled in the past 20 years.

ASTI IN RETROSPECT 01 The Role of Women in Agricultural Research

ASTI’s gender-disaggregated data have provided important insights into the demographics of women’s participation in agricultural research.

  • By the mid-2010s, women constituted one-third of the total number of agricultural researchers employed in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Although considerable progress has been made over time, female agricultural researchers are often younger, less well-qualified, and less represented in management compared with their male colleagues.

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ASTI IN RETROSPECT 02 The Prevalence of Volatility in Funding Trends

In deepening its analysis of agricultural research investment in Africa south of the Sahara (SSA), ASTI data brought to light the grave situation arising from the prevalence of volatility in funding trends in many of the region's countries.

  • Average volatility in SSA is much higher than in other developing regions.
  • Although volatility is driven by a variety of factors, data reveal that in SSA it has largely been caused by the short-term, project-oriented nature of donor and development bank funding.

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ASTI IN RETROSPECT 03 High Shares of Senior Researchers Aged Over 50

ASTI's data on researchers by age cohort have highlighted the looming issue in many countries of high shares of senior, well-qualified agricultural researchers aging out of the system without appropriately trained and experienced colleagues ready to replace them.

  • As of the mid-2010s, an average of 44 percent of agricultural researchers employed in low- and middle-income countries with PhD degrees were in their 50s and 60s.
  • Unsurprisingly, agricultural researchers without PhD degrees were considerably younger.

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ASTI IN RETROSPECT 04 Underinvestment in Agricultural Research

Conventional measures of agricultural research investment are useful for comparing investment levels across countries over time, but a country's capacity to invest in agricultural research actually depends on a range of factors, not just one. For this reason, ASTI developed a more nuanced measure of what is deemed to be an "attainable level" of national investment based on the structural characteristics of each country's economy and agricultural sector. This index demonstrates that the traditional 1 percent investment target is simply not realistic.

  • In 2016, the estimated gap between the world's actual and attainable investment levels was 34 percent.
  • Underinvestment is prevalent among countries with small- to medium-sized agricultural research systems, a reality that conventional measures of underinvestment masks.

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ASTI IN RETROSPECT 05 The Allocation of Research Resources

The allocation of scarce resources among various lines of agricultural research—in terms of financial investment and human resource capacity—is a significant policy decision, which, among other factors, affects whether and to what extent research delivers its intended results and has lasting impact.

  • ASTI evidence has dispelled the notion that staple crops are the dominate focus of agricultural research. Evidence shows that many national agricultural research systems have a broad focus on a wide variety of both staple and nonstaple crops, as well as many other important areas, such as livestock, natural resources, and socioeconomic.
  • Agricultural research continues to be extremely fragmented in many countries, with most focusing on a large number of subsectors, such as crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries, and natural resources.

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Nienke Beintema

Twenty years ago—with email still relatively rare and Internet access very limited in developing countries—the only way to get information was to send (and resend) letters, faxes, and telexes, and to visit (and revisit) research institutes in person. Then came the fastidious work of manually entering the data into computer files. Thankfully, much has changed. Greater Internet access paved the way for ASTI to make its data freely available online, becoming one of the CGIAR’s first open-access data sources. Technological advancements not only allowed collecting, processing, and sharing data to be done effectively, but also facilitated the development of creative solutions for accessing, presenting, and analyzing data. Fruitful partnerships became possible across national, regional, and international boundaries. Importantly, sustainable funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and numerous other donors facilitated the expansion and capacity building of ASTI’s network, collaboration with partners to undertake more in-depth analyses of the data’s implications, and greater outreach to disseminate the resulting findings.

Nienke Beintema, the author of these notes, is the former head of ASTI. This series of notes has been prepared as an ASTI output and has not been peer reviewed; any opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of IFPRI.

The author acknowledges the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets for their generous support of ASTI and, in particular, this series of notes. She also thanks Mary Jane Banks who provided excellent editorial and graphic design support in the preparation of this series.

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