Wiebe Bijker: Responsible research requires human input

A University professor believes a focus on the human factor as early as possible in research projects will help to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Nestled in the foot hills of the Himalayas, the Punjab region of India is home to more than 28 million people. It’s also the leading food producer for the entire subcontinent. So much rice is being produced in the fields on Punjab that when the rice straw is burned following harvesting, a thick smog descends on nearby Delhi, which can bring the metropolitan area of more than 20 million people to a standstill.

The University of Maastricht became involved in a research project to help find a solution. A chemical company had developed a new chemical process to pre-treat the rice straw that would enable it to be used in a biogas plant, so instead of simply burning the byproduct, it could be turned into energy for the region while reducing pollution. But as University of Maastricht professor Wiebe Bijker explains, when the team sought input from the farmers, their entire perspective changed. Although policy-makers saw burning as a problem, the farmers viewed it as a solution.

As the main food producer for the entidue to the fertile ground, they were forced to produce up to four different crops every year. The only way they could achieve that was to clear the soil in three weeks in readiness to start again with a different crop. Burning the rice straw was the only solution they had to this problem. We then talked to a small group of farmers who focused on organic farming. They knew that although burning the rice straw was a quick solution, it removed important nutrients from the soil. They were developing all manner of solutions, both high-tech and low-tech but on a small scale,” he says. Although biogas production seems currently not yet commercially viable, potential solutions can be found by adapting the business plan. By changing the ownership model of the plants, or by creating more outputs than just gas. In addition to gas, a plant could also produce waste sludge, which can be processed into fertiliser to help return nutrients to the soil and benefit the farmers. Such an idea has the potential to become a profitable solution for all. The ground-level conversations shifted the research agenda from biomass to a broader definition, which involved the farmers in much more detail to help find not just new solutions, but even new definitions of what the problem actually is.

Bijker believes there are lessons to be learned for anyone involved in a research project. “I think many research projects would benefit from rethinking their problem definition - often by broadening it - and the best way to do this is to bring in more people, very early in the project. No-one in our original project team considered that agricultural policies were part of the problem in Punjab. When this group of farmers told us, it immediately shifted our thinking,” he says.

In collaboration with Tech List

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