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8th Annual National Research Conference in Wolaita Sodo University

Wolaita Sodo University organized the 8th annual national research conference in its main campus with a theme of ”Research for Development” on 24th and 25th of May 2019. University College Dublin was invited to deliver a keynote address at the conference. Mark G. Richardson, Professor Emeritus in UCD and member of the BRTE project management board, delivered the keynote speech.

Wolaita Sodo University
8th Annual National Research Conference
“Research for Development”
24-25 May 2019 G.C.
Mark G. Richardson,
Professor Emeritus, University College Dublin

Your excellencies: President Tekele; Excellency Dagato Kumbe, Wolaita Zone Administrator; Vice-President Mesfin; Vice-Presidents; Representatives; Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a tremendous pleasure to be invited to deliver this keynote address on the occasion of the 8th Annual National Research Conference. Over the past five years, my University has established a strong partnership with Wolaita Sodo University. Colleagues from each university have spent time in one another’s universities. During this time, we have looked with amazement at the rapid growth of this seat of research, education and community outreach. I have no doubt that the growth, in terms of campus infrastructure, number of students and range of academic disciplines and products provided by your University allows your impact to reach every woreda and kabele in the Wolaita zone and far beyond.

The university is a vital institution to society. It is the societal institution that deals with the collection, dissemination and production of knowledge. The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, once famously said: “Knowledge is power; information is liberating; education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family”. Therefore, while the university provides huge opportunities for progress and development, this brings an equal level of responsibility on the custodians of this knowledge to apply this ‘power’ for the betterment of all in society.

Let us consider the theme of development through research. I am sure that there are as many definitions of ‘development’ as there are academic disciplines and even departments within these disciplines. I have no doubt that scholars vary in how they perceive this concept. In an attempt to identify common attributes across the various definitions of development, I am taken by the definition proposed by Robert Chambers, who views ‘Development’ simply as ‘planned change’. Chambers goes on to indicate that development is invariably associated with ‘people’ and suggests that development should be about empowering people to make choices on issues that improve life choices – whether they be economic, social, cultural, political or environmental.

In more recent years, a related term has gained increasing traction, namely ‘Resilience’. In development discourse resilience refers to:
• individuals, communities and/ or societies capacity to absorb the varied vulnerabilities to which they are exposed,
• to adapt lives and livelihoods following exposure to shock and stress,
• and/ or the capacity for transformation whether it be social, economic, political, cultural and/ or environmental.
The broad remit of the resilience concept together with its relevance at all societal levels renders it relevant to all academic disciplines.

Moving to the term ‘Research’: the ‘systematic inquiry to describe, explain, predict and control the observed phenomenon’. While universities do not have a monopoly in carrying out research they hold a special place in society in the collection, dissemination and production of knowledge.
So ‘development’ is ‘planned change’ and involves ‘people’. University is the essence of ‘people places’. But change is not easy and it can be painful. Translating ‘planned change’ into practice involves formulating strategic plans that can readily cascade from the level of the ‘university’ through to the basic academic unit. But how can we do this in a way that aligns the individual researcher’s needs and the individual researcher’s efforts with the wider needs of society? To be impactful we must ensure that our research is interconnected:
• interconnected between disciplines,
• interconnected between university and government,
• interconnected between university and industry.
Development through research requires focus: not a focus on research activity, but a focus on research impact. (While I acknowledge of course that ‘activity’ and ‘impact’
are linked, they are not necessarily linked proportionately!). Interconnection for impact requires teamwork.

Teamwork is not necessarily the hallmark of the classic model of a researcher. Let us reflect for a moment on the lonely journey of the Ph.D. candidate. The Ph.D. journey is by its nature the preserve of the solo operator. But for impact we must build our research communities into team efforts. There has never been a clearer need for teamwork than that required to address the interdependent challenges of the world today. The good news is that we now have a shared roadmap!

That roadmap is, of course, the agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals. Through this example of teamwork, co-facilitated by the Irish and Kenyan ambassadors to the UN, we have already undertaken a momentous international effort to reach common agreement on what needs to be done. Let us use international teamwork in our research effort to address our priority needs. A wonderful example of teamwork is the deep relationship between my university, UCD, and this university, WSU, that has been formed through the ‘BRTE’ project – ‘Building Resilience through Education’ – led by Prof. Gibbons and Prof. Berhanu.

Building on the philosophy of the BRTE project as a model for co-operation between universities in Europe and Africa, the Director of Research in UCD, Dr. Triona McCormack, met with Minister Shumete Gizaw in Addis Ababa in March to discuss possible future partnership models in addressing global challenges. They discussed European and European-African funding instruments that might be brought to bear in future partnering, to address global challenges while enhancing the innovation capacity of the Ethiopian regions. Their discussions gravitated to the teamwork required to address food security and UCD’s multi-actor proposal for building a sustainable infrastructure for agri-food.

Recent alignment of global policy in agreeing our shared targeted goals is positive, but as we move forward we must reflect on why investment to date has not delivered solutions to the interdependent challenges of producing competitive, safe, nutritious food with sustainable environmental and societal consequences. The approaches of the past will not produce the future outcomes we need to respond to the interdependency of these challenges. We need to equal the ground-breaking common framework agreed in the UN with a paradigm shift in our models of research partnership. The UCD proposal would stress the importance of teamwork across the chain, in multi-actor research partnerships combining production strategies, processing optimisation and nutrition impact with sustainable practices. This proposed model of teamwork would see research and education partners working with industry, government and NGOs with each entity operating to the principles set out in the UN Sustainability Development Goals.

At the heart of such a project is the circular bioeconomy, maximising food production and processing cycles to optimise the value of our resources and minimise environmental impact. Let us think of a focus on ‘sufficiency’ rather than ‘efficiency’. The research must extend to the distinct nutritional needs of the individual consumer. Recognising the significance of interdisciplinarity in such research we reflect that food must meet citizens’ desires to lead a high quality of life. Thus, food production and processing systems must be designed from the ground up with nutritional needs in mind. New genomic and metabolomics technologies make it possible for the first time to recognise and meet the different nutritional needs of our global population.

Combining these two advancing technologies with the right regulatory, governance and knowledge transfer structures will create a powerful combination of healthy, nutritious food, targeted to specific population segments that takes full account of the local environment, culture and resources. We think of parallels with the concept of personalised medicine. Importantly, knowledge will be designed to meet regional and local needs but will be captured in a way that allows the sharing of a baseline knowledge across a network of institutes participating in the project.

The connected network will be a beacon of commitment to the UN Sustainability Development Goals and to sharing leadership and knowledge with the wider world. Each participating institute will support the transfer of knowledge, capacity and infrastructure between the partners globally.
Communities in the past have grown out of geographical location. Future communities will be built on shared data flows, rather than the restrictions of geography. Thus the project will fully harness teamwork communities through use of planned open science cloud technologies to ensure the availability of shared, accessible and usable data. Collaborations between European and African universities in the past have often been restricted to one-to-one individual researcher collaborations rather than the more
sustainable model of university-to-university teamwork collaborations. Worse still, many of those collaborations have taken the form of one-way traffic rather than a shared learning experience. Future collaborations must be genuine teamwork experiences.

We must build on the momentum around preparations for the next European Union framework programme, the success of the African Union – European Union summit in Abidjan in November 2017 and the pursuit of the UN Sustainability Development Goals, in order to advance novel approaches to ensure cohesive and deliverable responses to these challenges. This will require teamwork between universities and between researchers, all of whom must have a clear focus on a shared vision of their research impact.

University College Dublin and Wolaita Sodo University have, through the ‘BRTE’ project, provided a model for partnership based on the attributes of Irish empathy and Ethiopian pride. Let us build on this further together to ensure development through research. I wish us all great discussions at this National Conference and that our research will have great impact.

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