Future science teamwork yields unique international collaboration

The modern researcher tends to need to be good at some form of cross discipline integration of research and development practice. But what of the integration of future science agendas as they are emerging? Does this require new ways of collaborating with researchers and research stakeholders? SIMON FIELKE and EMMA JAKKU report
Dr Justine Lacey and Dr Andrew Moore, Responsible Innovation and Digiscape Future Science Platform leads, respectively.

Since 2020, a small group of CSIRO researchers supported by the Responsible Innovation (RI) and Digiscape Future Science Platforms have been collaborating with researchers from AgResearch (New Zealand Crown Research Institute) to accelerate the development of a new area of study. That is, how might responsible innovation practices apply to digital agricultural technologies?

Our end goal was to ultimately create a dialogue in Australia and New Zealand on RI and how it could be used in the development of digital agtech solutions. Specifically, we wanted to uncover what opportunities and challenges each organisation (and country) faced regarding the application of RI to their respective innovation systems. Importantly, we realised we had an opportunity to take collaboration to the next level internally and externally – both in terms of two FSPs blending knowledge internally in CSIRO, and by our organisation leading collaboration internationally as part of a geographically diverse editorial team. With this unique research taking place against the backdrop of a global pandemic, we are pleased to finally share our learnings as recently published in a special issue of Sociologia Ruralis.

Who was involved?

The collaborative research project set out to tackle a key question: how might responsible innovation practices apply to digital agricultural technologies?

The collaborative research project set out to tackle a key question: how might responsible innovation practices apply to digital agricultural technologies?

Initially, the support of two FSP leaders – Andrew Moore (Digiscape FSP) and Justine Lacey (Responsible Innovation FSP) – was critical in allowing us to seek out the collaborative space and funding opportunities to explore the need to integrate ‘responsible innovation’ as a concept with real-world digital agricultural technology development processes. This support leveraged initial research and practical integration of social science and user experience (now a Future Science and Technology Plan Cross Cutting Capability) to justify this need – Aysha Fleming (Land and Water), Cara Stitzlein and Martijn Mooij (Data61) were central to this intellectual project.

Our science engagements (in real life – pre-COVID) at international conferences provided a forum to meet like-minded researchers across the globe tackling the same challenges of social scientific integration in agricultural technology development processes. An organic team then formed around an initial email thread that resulted in the 12 editorial team members leading a call for a conference session and associated special issue in Sociologia Ruralis. These co-editors were all actively publishing in the space and had been doing so for between 3 and 31 years.

What did we do?

Despite the postponement of the international conference (which will soon be held in Cairns in 2022) the editorial team pushed ahead with the special issue call for papers. We processed and reviewed abstracts and full papers that were relevant in collaboration with the Journal’s editors and their editorial office and under double-blind conditions. In some cases, we had to argue how and why disciplinary evolution was required due to the cutting-edge nature of integrating two areas of ‘future’ science (and as reflected in the editorial title). This was in keeping with the deep disciplinary home of Sociologia Ruralis whilst also recognising the need for evolution and integration of disciplinary efforts. Such dialogue helped make our arguments clearer and more concise. This process was a lot of administrative work, but the editorial team thought it was of critical importance. Good things do take time.

Why did we do it?

Our aim was to provoke a change in the way disciplines can evolve by collaborating both internally and externally. At the start of the project, we could see a need to reframe the way digital technology is developed. We hypothesised that responsible innovation, when embedded in digital development processes, would spark greater creative scientific thinking along the development journey. Our subsequent collaboration resulted in the advancement of responsible innovation on an international scale. As such, engagement in such projects is seen as valuable, and particularly so when the blending of disciplines results in conflicting ideas being discussed.

How long did it take?

In summary,

  • We began our work in the Digiscape FSP in 2017
  • Integration with the RI FSP began in 2018
  • Our special issue proposal was accepted in early 2020
  • The issue was completed in April 2022.

The process of collaboration took about 5 years. However, the capabilities built during this process and shared across project team members, leaders, FSPs, and internationally, are invaluable.  

For example, Emma and I now deploy our expertise in externally funded, interdisciplinary and cross-organisational project teams. We provide advice on how new digital tools could positively impact sustainability and productivity outcomes in the Australian agricultural sector.

When we think about the impact we achieved over our five-year project, it goes far beyond the special issue of Sociologia Ruralis. It was primarily the process of collaboration from which future research can evolve. This is something we see as core to delivering the future science ambitions of both the Digiscape and RI FSPs.  

Good things take time – the process of collaboration behind the project took place over five years.

With thanks…

This exploratory research and development activity was funded by the forward thinking of CSIRO’s Digiscape FSP, CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation FSP, a collaborative project between the CSIRO and AgResearch Ltd (NZ) and Cutting Edge Science Symposium support from CSIRO’s Research Office.

Simon and Emma are grateful for collaborative support from the editorial team – Kelly, Michael, Callum, Vaughan, Laurens, Ruth, Áine, David, Leanne and Steven – and their institutions – Ottawa University, Colorado State University, DairyNZ, The University of Tasmania, Wageningen University, The University of Melbourne, Teagasc, Reading University, The James Hutton Institute and Cornell University. This effort would not have been possible without our CSIRO Digiscape and RI FSP colleagues, AgResearch Ltd colleagues, and all the researchers and research participants that contributed to our thinking, integration and the outputs that resulted.