RANTOUL — Research on the means to help feed the developing world is fine but won’t do much good if it isn’t put into practice.
Peter Goldsmith, director of the University of Illinois Soybean Innovation Lab, uses a scene from the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” to illustrate that point.
The movie details how the mission to the moon was aborted in 1970 when an oxygen tank in the service module failed, threatening the lives of the astronauts. NASA engineers had come up with a way to get the spaceship two-thirds of the way back to earth.
“Ed Harris (NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz) said, ‘That’s unacceptable. You have to finish,’” Goldsmith said. “‘You have to bring them all the way back.’”
In much the same way, people who are malnourished don’t care if a bunch of university researchers have come up with a way to produce more food if they can’t put that food on their tables, Goldsmith said. In other words, the research isn’t much good without development.
That’s why the United States Agency for International Development has awarded the Soybean Innovation Lab a $5 million grant to train and empower other Feed the Future innovation labs to make a difference and help find a solution.
“There’s a cultural change within USAID and those who work with it that research is a means to an end, not the end in itself,” Goldsmith siad. “That’s a big change.”
There has been criticism that the money USAID invests for research doesn’t achieve a sustained impact. The expanded program seeks to remedy that problem.
The program started with an initial $1 million investment by USAID in the Soybean Innovation Lab to develop a beta version of the instructional design curriculum. What the lab technology managers learned will be implemented in the larger program.
The new program calls for everyone “to get their head around the product life cycle; that we not only care about phase 1, we also care about phases 7 and 8,” Goldsmith said.
He said people who have been trained as researchers will need additional skills to help bring the project “to scale” — to a large enough impact to affect many people.
He said there will likely be some resistance to the change. But Goldsmith said the philosophical change is needed.
The award builds upon an innovation-to-impact model developed by the Soybean Innovation Lab. It focuses on need first and works backward to build the products and services to improve operations and organizations.
A model will be used that involves listening to clients and working together to build a readily adoptable solution they can use.
“It’s teaching us as faculty that if you want to work with USAID and deal with problems of poverty and malnutrition, you have to be a finisher. You can’t just be a starter,” Goldsmith said. “That’s a big cultural change. It’s also very exciting.”
The new five-year project will use a platform called “just-in-time-learning.” Web-based, it assists innovation lab technology managers with the skills and knowledge to bring their research to reality. It will also allow donors with a management system to track returns on research investments.
There are 24 innovation labs that USAID uses in universities throughout the country to run the large programs. Goldsmith’s lab happens to deal with soybean innovation. Another at Kansas State Univrsity deals with sorghum.
Goldsmith said the program will go into effect in the first quarter of next year.
“It’s the human-resource and technical side of USAID’s operations management,” he said. “Their mission is to end poverty and malnutrition in the developing world, and the University of Illinois is helping them go about it more effectively.”