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Grounding the helicopters

Article in Geoderma by Ken E. Giller
Blog Ken Giller "Grounding the helicopters"
June 9, 2020 By: Ken Giller Image: N2Africa

Minasny et al. (2020) raise an issue concerning the ethics of scientific research and publication that has implications far beyond the issue of authorship. It is a topic to which Ken Giller is particularly sensitive given that he has devoted virtually his whole career to research on smallholder agriculture in the tropics. In particular, Minasny et al. highlight the unbalanced power relationships when it comes to research collaboration and publication which stimulates him to reflect on what can we do to reduce or avoid such bias.

This article has been published by Ken E. Giller in Geoderma, Volume 373.  

During my service as Professor of Soil Science at the University of Zimbabwe we were frequently faced with international researchers appearing out of the blue to announce “we’ve written this proposal for submission and would like to add your name…” or “we’ve secured research funding and we’d like to collaborate…” or even worse “we’ve been funded to assist you in revising your teaching curriculum!” Often the topics were of dubious relevance or interest to staff in my department, but the dearth of funding within our university nevertheless led to collaboration. In response to these experiences we developed our own research strategy and priorities. When approached subsequently for collaboration we insisted proposals should be adapted to fit our strategy and not vice versa.

Concern about the quality and equality of partnerships behind proposals for large integrated research programmes led the Dutch research funding agency, NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development to take action. I was member of the NWO-WOTRO Board at the time and we introduced a two-stage grant making process where the successful pre-proposals had to organise a ‘compulsory workshop’ together with the collaborators and a broader range of stakeholders in the country where the research was to be conducted. Each team with a successful pre-proposal is awarded €15,000 to organise the workshop (which is then deducted from the grant for the successful proposals). At this stage the proposal has a 50% chance of funding at this stage. In my personal experience as an applicant since I left the Board I see both pros and cons of this approach. On the positive side, much closer stakeholder engagement is facilitated leading to better articulation of the problem statement and priorities for research. As the workshop is run jointly by the research team, often with the local researchers in the leading role, it leads to closer collaboration once the grant is awarded. On the downside, half of the proposal writing teams and their stakeholders face the disappointment of failing to be funded. In my experience, from both winning and losing proposals, the learning provided by such workshops outweighs the disadvantages. Often other opportunities are later found to pursue the research agenda developed.

Creating equal partnerships and recognising contributions is an important principle for NWO-WOTRO. They sometimes organise ‘match-making’ workshops to assist scientists to establish collaborations. All project partners have to sign consortium agreements that cover issues related to intellectual property and publication of results generated. This is no doubt ‘work in progress’ as we can always improve on our approaches and procedures, but their rules may be a source of inspiration for others.

When approached by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a project to reap the benefits of biological nitrogen fixation by the legume-rhizobium symbiosis, I drew together a team of African scientists to collaborate in identifying priorities and designing the programme. We ran a series of consultations including two large workshops, one at an international conference of the African Association of Biological Nitrogen Fixation in Hammamet, Tunisia in 2008 and one in Mombasa, Kenya in 2009 to ensure a broad constituency of African experts agreed on priorities before the project was submitted for funding (Giller et al., 2013). The resulting project N2Africa (www.N2Africa.org) subsequently ran for ten years in eleven countries involving a wide range of scientists and other stakeholders. Obviously not all research consortia have the luxury of funding for a planning period when developing a proposal, but this should be encouraged where possible.

Above I share examples of what I consider to be good practice in developing collaborations, but many issues remain. One area of particular concern to me comes from large-scale global or continental studies where there appears to be virtually no field work or local knowledge to back up the conclusions. Some of the most highly cited papers have little grounding when it comes to checking local numbers. For example, Foley et al. (2011)1 grossly underestimate potential and achievable crop yields across Africa compared with those observed in farmers’ fields and on experimental stations. Their overall conclusions perhaps hold but the actual numbers are far from the mark in terms of accuracy. Collaboration with at least some authors from countries in the South might have avoided these errors.

A very different example is a recent paper produces an alarming account of the advent of roads resulting on impacts on deforestation in the Congo Basin (Kleinschroth et al., 2019). Whilst I share the authors concern for indiscriminate logging and forest loss I was surprised not to find any consideration of the complete lack of access to transport and livelihood opportunities for local people. Here again involvement of local scientists might have avoided such a one-sided view of the issues.

My final concern is on who decides on the research agenda concerning issues of agricultural development. So often calls for proposals from the European Union for collaborative research in the less-developed countries seems to follow issues deemed topical in Europe. Surely the tables should be turned so as to follow issues raised in the ‘target’ countries rather than the latest fashion in science?

I thank Minasny and colleagues for highlighting current biases in our research and publication systems which need much further debate. I have to admit that the publication concerns are not addressed by my university graduate school’s guidelines for authorship – something I have already acted upon!


Foley et al., 2011
J.A. Foley, N. Ramankutty, K.A. Brauman, E.S. Cassidy, J.S. Gerber, M. Johnston, N.D. Mueller, C. O’Connell, D.K. Ray, P.C. West, C. Balzer, E.M. Bennett, S.R. Carpenter, J. Hill, C. Monfreda, S. Polasky, J. Rockström, J. Sheehan, S. Siebert, D. Tilman, D.P.M. Zaks
Solutions for a cultivated planet
Nature, 478 (2011), pp. 337-342
CrossRefView Record in Scopus Google Scholar

Giller et al., 2013
K.E. Giller, A.C. Franke, R. Abaidoo, F. Baijukya, A. Bala, S. Boahen, K. Dashiell, S. Kantengwa, J.-M. Sanginga, N. Sanginga, A.J. Simmons, A. Turner, J. de Wolf, P. Woomer, B. Vanlauwe
N2Africa: putting nitrogen fixation to work for smallholder farmers in Africa
B. Vanlauwe, P.J.A. van Asten, G. Blomme (Eds.), Agro-ecological Intensification of Agricultural Systems in the African Highlands, Routledge, London (2013), pp. 156-174
View Record in Scopus Google Scholar

Kleinschroth et al., 2019
F. Kleinschroth, N. Laporte, W.F. Laurance, S.J. Goetz, J. Ghazoul
Road expansion and persistence in forests of the Congo Basin
Nat. Sustainability (2019), 10.1038/s41893-019-0310-6
Google Scholar

Minasny et al., 2020
B. Minasny, D. Fiantis, B. Mulyanto, Y. Sulaeman, W. Widyatmanti
Global soil science research collaboration in the 21st Century: Time to end helicopter research
Geoderma (2020), 10.1016/j.geoderma.2020.114299
In this issue
Google Scholar


  1. 1. Cited 2586 times, Web of Science, 03/03/2020

One Contribution to “Grounding the helicopters”

  1. Gerrit Holtland
    Tropical agriculturalist
    WUR in tropical research

    Sorry for responding very late to this excellent article. I hope Prof. Giller is still interested to look at my feedback and respond to it.

    I fully share the frustration of Prof. Giller and I fully support his view. At the same time I would like to expand the discussion and include the institute where Prof. Giller is working (WUR) in the discussion.

    As agricultural development practitioner working in developing countries for over 30 year I see, like Prof. Giller, a permanent bombardment of proposals from the Netherland academic and development community for research and projects that have no relation with local realities.

    In 2007 I published a book about the uneasy relationship between science and development (called “Eroded consensus”) that my employer at that time (Nuffic) did not want to publish. They delegated that to CIDIN of Nijmegen University. Yet, also this known centre of critical reflection on development cooperation, count not appreciate a critical reflection on the role of development research. So it was published ‘online’ without any explanation and without any link leading to it. As of today it is well hidden on the internet.

    The core of the book is that western academics and policy makers continuously create new policy narratives. Simple stories about “development” like “participation is the key to progress”; or “Value Chain Development” or “micro finance” or “market access” etc. These narratives are generally created by western scientists (or think tanks) and often based on western concepts and concerns. When a new narrative is launched, African experts are caught off-guard: they clearly lack the expertise to use the concept. By the time they find out about the new hype, they are confronted with scores of Western academic who claim to be expert in the new approach. This means all African experts have to come to Europe to be trained. To get funds for new projects or research, they have to use the same concept and narratives.

    So they start applying the concept (mostly via NGOs and projects) but they have insufficient resources and the approach is watered down to a very simplistic ‘ticking the box’ exercise. After a while western academics observe this and conclude that it does not work. Robert Chambers used to call this ‘bad practices’. At least he did proper follow up research to see what happened with his narrative. After him, many other holy grails have been buried without much ceremony. They get slowly ignored and taken over by new ones.

    The critical question is: why is this happening? For sure the power distance is very important (and I am always surprised how many western academics do not recognise this and naively believe that only arguments count). Another element is that western academics increasingly lack the contact with local realities. And it is here that I would like to ask Prof. Giller to reflect on his own institute: the WUR. I will use my own experience to illustrate my concerns.

    I studies tropical agriculture in Wageningen in the 1980’s. We had three sources of knowledge . First of all the curriculum and the teaching materials were a condensation of decades of experience of tropical agriculture research and practices. The second resource was the Department of Tropical Agriculture with over a dozen of experience staff. Thirdly WUR had some ten places in development countries where it stationed its own staff to do research with its’ own resources. I benefitted from that when I did several research assignments on different subject in Ivory Coast where four WUR staff (PhD-s and Post-docs) did field research embedded in the local research and farming system. These staff guided me and my fellow students and enabled us to live with smallholders. In this ways I was able live and work for a full year with smallholders in the rainforest of Ivory Coast.

    All this had gone now. Since some 20 years there is no longer a specific curriculum, no department and no permanent research capacities in developing countries. When I meet Dutch student doing their internship it is mostly at the Dutch Embassy or in Dutch companies. Supervision and coaching is limited and hardly ever by someone who knows the local circumstances. Often it is limited to 3 months during which they do some add jobs for their employer; I have never seen them doing research (except interviewing some people).

    As WUR has no own resources to invest in proper education for tropical agriculturalist it is increasingly dependent on development money (from DGIS and Nuffic) where the narratives of the day (the hypes) are more important than local realities. The desk officers of these organisation are increasingly coming from the generation where WUR did not have the resources to get them into contact with local realities. This means that it is increasingly difficult for them to understand how subtle western thinking influence their worldview and decisions. The latest example of this a hyped concept is the Food System Approach that is presently promoted by WUR. It is developed in the EU context and simply imposed on Africans. Nobody has any experience in applying it in Africa yet, but WUR staff has already published widely on it and is now ready to train African expert on it (who will of course happily come).

    This is very similar to what Prof. Giller describes: research priorities and modalities are dominated by western academics. I think that a defining moment for research was in 2006 when the RAWOO was liquidated (Advisory Council for Development Research). This was an organ where Southern Academic could influence the priorities and operational modalities in development research. It was no longer deemed necessary by the minister of development cooperation and western academic did remarkably little to save it.

    My question to Prof. Giller is: do you recognise this pattern of western generated narratives? Do you recognise that WUR lost most of it capacities to link student to local realities? And how would you respond to the following challenging statement: If WUR is not willing to invest substantially more of its own resources into maintaining a link with the realities of African smallholders, it is better to stop educated young people in ‘development subjects’.


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