Skip to main content

Global challenges and bio-based economy: Assessing institutional structures, constraints and outcomes of bio-based research in Agriculture (ISCOBRA)

Final Report Summary - ISCOBRA (Global challenges and bio-based economy: Assessing institutional structures, constraints and outcomes of bio-based research in Agriculture (ISCOBRA))

Context and objectives
New organizations have emerged in the last years to support innovation and discovery in plant science by facilitating collaboration and resource sharing among scientists and stakeholder groups. Such organizations are promoting common rules and approaches, and enabling collaboration on research projects often based on pooled resources (biological, technological, methodological, data, human, financial, institutional) contributed by the different stakeholder groups. These global consortia have become central in managing R&D actors for plant genetic adaptation and improvement. The growing reliance upon open cooperation and collaboration nationally, regionally and internationally has its roots in several contextual factors: the need to address global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity erosion and global food security; the increased recognition that knowledge based post genomics innovations demand cultivation of ongoing, iterative, and mutual learning among the innovation actors so as to enable dynamic and sustainable collective innovation; the increased interest of the private sector in Public-private partnerships due to increased complexity and costs of research and development (R&D); and the increased recognition by actors of material, data and analysis interdependencies.
This increased demand for global collaboration within the whole innovation ecosystem is occurring at the same time as the increase in institutional constraints over biological materials. Over the last 20 years, an international legal architecture on genetic resources has emerged, culminating with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2004) and the recently adopted Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (UN Convention of Biological Diversity, 2010). Other related discussions on genetic resources have also taken place at the World Trade Organization (in particular Article 27.3 b of the TRIPs agreement), the World Intellectual Organization (the Union for Protection of Plant Varieties and the Intergovernmental Committee on Genetic Resources, Traditional knowledge and expression of folklore) and the World Health Organization (The Pandemic Influenza preparedness framework for the sharing of Influenza viruses and access to vaccines and Other Benefits). These new global regulatory requirements are affecting the capacity of scientist to acquire new material for their research.
The project has identified two primary objectives. The first one aims to assess the impact of global policy changes that affect access to material inputs to research on norms, values and practices of international scientific collaboration in bio-based research for agriculture. The second one aims to better understanding the advantages and limits of various collective arrangements for biodiversity-based research in agriculture.


The project produced results at three different levels:

• At the conceptual level, an analytical framework has been developed for understanding how characteristics of the resource, regulatory constraints and scientist perceptions about the exchange environment affect the exchange flow of biological materials and associated information for scientific research. The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework has been developed by Elinor Ostrom (2005) to describe coordination problems and social dilemmas associated with natural resources sharing problems across diverse local contexts. It has been used to analyze the diversity of institutional arrangements put in place to face these collective action challenges. Ostrom’s approach has been adapted to the specific context of complex global collaboration involving 1) heterogeneous and dispersed (i.e. not belonging to the same local context) actors and resources; and 2) strong international and national rules, regulations and laws that have increased control over the access, exchange and use of biological materials (Louafi, Welch, 2015). The ‘Contested Resources Framework’ (Welch, Louafi, to be published) has been developed to reflect this complex collaboration context. Biological materials are contested in that they are attached to a variety of different types of rights and constraints. Flows of materials occur among scientists and other individuals or organizations that hold material. Hence, scientists have both resource based relationships and collaboration relationships. These relationships likely overlap, but not all collaborators provide resources and not all resources come from collaborators. Access to and exchange of biological materials are determined by the characteristics of the resource, institutional controls on the resource, and the relationships within which researchers are embedded and exchange resources. Some resources are freely available with no restrictions on exchange and use, while others are available only conditionally, with restrictions on distribution and use due to safety, ownership, or other reasons. Additionally, some relationships are stronger and more trust-based than others. The contested resources framework implies that the negotiated access to materials is a fundamental determinant of collaborative structure and research outcomes. The framework identifies five components that determine access to resources: institutional, relational, transactional, individual and biophysical. This framework has been used to derive hypotheses that were tested using data from a unique national survey examining scientists’ material exchange and use patterns for microbial, livestock, aquatic and insect germplasm (Welch, Louafi, 2015; Seyoum, Louafi, Welch, 2015).
• At the theoretical level, new proposals that link heterogeneity, trust, and equity have been tested. Considering that several dimensions of heterogeneity are intertwined for managing global commons, we analyzed mechanisms for trust building in a context of complex collaboration structures that gather heterogeneous actors, resources, capacities and knowledge and investigated how trust is institutionalized in different context of heterogeneity. We have demonstrated that the relationships among structural, cognitive and resource social capital are unstable in a highly heterogeneous and geographically dispersed social context. This work has led to a reassessment of the social capital bases necessary for sustaining global knowledge, material and data commons (Fusi, Welch Louafi, 2016).
• At the management level, case studies analysis of selected global research projects involving exchange of genetic resources for food and agriculture (GRFA) have identified several strengths and weaknesses of various collective arrangements for material exchange, data sharing, and equity issues for global collaboration in science. Five key areas – drivers for collaboration, diversity of resources pooled in and produced by collaboration, heterogeneity and membership, governance structures and sharing policy and approaches –were identified for managing collaboration in complex global projects and initiatives. Tradeoffs and balances are to be struck across these areas and the richness of a comparative analysis allowed identification of a spectrum of possible actions and directions. We also highlighted the complexities and linkages by referencing the five areas for three challenging phases for any organization: the formation process; the design of implementing activities; and the review of critical factors for success. A checklist of possible tensions to be considered and possible modes of action has been developed.

The research project has several impacts: First, it contributes to the literature through the production of articles and presentations that further inform the field. Prior research has not examined the constraints on resource inputs and their implications for the structure and production of science. The contested resource framework has addressed this gap and new hypotheses have been derived and tested. Second, it provides empirical evidence that can address both the gap between negotiation and implementation and the lack of integration of science concern in multilateral treaties. It contributes sound empirical evidence on global bio-based policy field to address the recognizable lack of fit between global regulatory institutions and actual stakeholder practices. To this end, specific attention has been given, through the multidisciplinary approach, to establish strong linkages with genetic resource user communities in order to directly fuel this research within their own collaborative frameworks. Working relationships with several crop-based communities (Sorghum, Cacao, Coffee...) or genomic-based community (Divseek) have been established and will last beyond the timeframe of this project. Third, it informs policy implementation processes currently underway in Europe and in many countries. Fourth, the collaborations initiated in the course of the project have developed into lasting collaborations with the Center on Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Studies at Arizona State University and with several users’ communities.