Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council. Picture: Supplied
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council. Picture: Supplied

Beyond agriculture research and development: technology transfer for societal benefit

By Thulasizwe Mkhabela Time of article published Sep 22, 2021

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There is consensus on the importance of science, research, development and innovation in advancing economic and societal development.

However, the pivotal role of transfer of knowledge is often overlooked. Somebody said that “science is not complete until knowledge has been transferred” and this quotation aptly encapsulates the importance of going beyond just research and development, but complete the loop by transferring the knowledge generated.

The transfer of knowledge and inventions from universities and science councils, such as the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Medical Research Council (MRC), National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), etc. to society has a twofold objective, namely the business community should be advanced through innovations, and society should benefit.

Economic success is relatively easy to measure (for example, increased sales), but social benefits are not. However, the complexity of measuring and quantifying benefits to society should not detract from its importance. With this understanding, technology transfer processes can be designed to lead to products and services that are more valuable in a holistic sense. The application of this principle approach is explained by considering the example of a distinct technology and market of genetically modified agricultural crops.

Research and education have been the core tasks of universities and science councils since their founding; however, a third task has been added, which is to translate the value of academic and research institutions into benefits for society. This refers to the social, entrepreneurial, and innovative activities that research institutions conduct besides their educational and research activities, and its aim is to transfer knowledge and technology from research institutions to society to solve real-world problems.

In practical terms, this concept usually means licensing out research results to industrial private sector partners or establishing spin-out companies.

Many people are often confused about why universities and science councils are interested in technology commercialisation, in nurturing start-up companies, and in facilitating more patents and license agreements. It is not only about the promise of future revenues that might be generated from these activities. But first and foremost, technology transfer must serve the core mission of sharing ideas and innovations in the service of society’s well-being.

What are the definition and concrete terms of “social benefit”? Without elucidation, statements on the well-being of society easily degenerate into empty phrases. I am of the view that this analysis requires a holistic model that considers (a) individuals’ well-being, (b) the common good of society, and (c) the planet.

The conventional wisdom that to achieve social value through technology, the two classic drivers of innovation, namely, technology push and market pull, are no longer sufficient. A third dimension is necessary — we will call it good world design — which helps align technical progress with social welfare.

By way of an example we will discuss the orange-fleshed sweet potato technology developed by the ARC. The orange-fleshed sweet potato is used as an example.

What is the background of this debate? In poor countries, starch (maize, rice, potato, sweet potato, cassava, etc.) is often the only staple food, leading to nutrient deficiencies that cause serious health problems. For example, insufficient vitamin A can negatively affect skin, growth, and eyesight and cause blindness and death.

Several years ago, the ARC attempted to ameliorate vitamin A deficiency by means of modern technology by developing a variety of sweet potato that contained beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor which is converted into vitamin A in the human body). Notably, after many attempts, they succeeded by using genetic modification through advanced plant breeding techniques. Because the colour of these sweet potato tubers is orange, the variety/cultivar is loosely referred to as the orange-fleshed sweet potato.

A diet that uses orange-fleshed instead of conventional sweet potato should, therefore, drastically reduce the number of cases of diseases associated with vitamin A deficiency. The orange-fleshed sweet potato project was therefore considered an exciting achievement in ameliorating malnutrition.

To transfer its invention from the laboratory to agriculture, the ARC is entering into partnerships with private sector players through license agreements, which should enable the multiplication and distribution of runners (planting material) to farmers nationally and beyond.

However, such innovations can be met with resistance. Some interest groups may purport that such may not solve the problem of vitamin A deficiency but exacerbate the problem because the consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potato may lead to an even more unbalanced diet. Furthermore, the motives for such projects may be questioned. Was the goal to improve the health of the poor or to increase the profits of the participating companies?

Technologies have various effects, for example, helpful or destructive impacts on individuals and the common good. The challenge, therefore, is to design technologies (and related business models) that have more positive and less negative effects.

Technology transfer can create both economic and social value if the responsibility to society is perceived and anchored as a core dimension of corporate strategy. In this manner, knowledge and inventions from academic and allied institutions can be transferred into solutions for social problems and major business opportunities.

However, if social responsibility is only understood as a means for improving the reputation of companies and not anchored in the core mission, this dimension becomes unnecessary. By integrating social and environmental objectives into the corporate mission, technology transfer organisations will build long-term corporate value and help achieve the core objective of the third mission of universities and science councils.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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