A Comment on Passive versus Active Approaches in Guiding Research Efforts

Nov 14, 2021

Most people would agree that science is a powerful tool to solve problems and offers much to bring about betterment in the material life of humanity generally speaking.

However, my thesis here is that science is most effective when it is actively directed, rather than passively.  In other words, since the work of science thrives when it addresses problems broken down into solvable pieces rather than amorphous issues, it pays to spend time working on defining what these pieces are.   

Let me explain.  Compare for example nebulous problems to be solved like "win the war", "stop the pandemic" or for our world "farm without fumigants" to the far more clearly defined problem of developing of a offensive weapon of a certain type, a mandate to discover a vaccine for a known virus or clear unwavering support for one aspect of dealing with a soil pathogen.  In each case, the specific trumps the general in enabling scientists to bear down fully on the more defined and consequently more addressable problem.

This issue is very real for our industry.  While from the industry side it is easy to passively advertise the need for research on an issue affecting the industry and see what shakes out in terms of proposals, such broad generalities do not result in good organization nor focus.  Consider that it takes significant amounts of time and effort on the part of a group of scientists or entrepreneurs to go through developing a proposal, assemble a team of people who fit the work and draw up a realistic budget.  If this completed effort is ultimately found to "not fit with what we had in mind" and rejected, all of the previous effort and time is wasted, not only for the scientists who did all of the spade work on the proposal, but also for the growers who have missed getting something valuable done.  It is an opportunity lost, and truly this does not need to happen.

The solution to this problem is an active approach where those choosing to have scientists work well with them spend the time and effort to drill down into defining the particular problem to be solved so researchers considering working in this area have a better handle on it.  The problem more defined allows those applying to align themselves on it, put the right skill set into it and have more confidence that what they are working on is desired.  The proposal, once drawn up, should now overlap well with what sponsors are actually seeking and what the scientists have lined up in people and proposal.

At the end of the day, the more up front clarification and definition you as a potential sponsor of research can provide when looking to solve a problem through science, the easier you are going to make for those people who can get you to that resolution.

By Mark Bolda
Author - County Director, Santa Cruz County and Farm Advisor, Strawberries & Caneberries