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Egenis · Research

Public-Private Partnerships & Co-Innovation in Plant Genomics (2009-2010)

Matt Hodges

Start date

2009-01-01

Affiliated staff

Steve Hughes

Background

Apomixis is a mode of plant reproduction akin to ‘self-cloning’, whereby plants produce seed asexually which replicates the maternal genome. It is relatively common in nature with examples among the Poaceae (e.g. Guinea grass) and Compositae (e.g. dandelion). Few crops have an apomictic breeding system. The potential of an ‘apomixis technology’ lies in the genetic ‘fixing’ of successful hybrids, which will greatly curtail breeding and development costs. It could also support breeding in the developing world, enabling resource-poor farmers and other stakeholders to unlock biological diversity, and fix hybrids to fit niche microclimates. Development of effective public-private partnerships (PPPs) is widely acknowledged as central to such future advances in ag-biotech (EASAC 2004). However, some analysts claim resulting ‘technological monocultures’ may impede the democratic impact of new and emerging biotechnologies (e.g. Richards 2004). The private sector has had an increasing presence in apomixis research since the 1990s. This project assessed its impact from an historical anthropological perspective, with a view to the implications for frontier research and co-innovation, related policy, and delivery of food security agendas.

Aims

  • How are public-private partnerships and related collaborations in ag-biotech set up, and what core technology transfer and development processes do they undertake?
  • How do they influence research aims, knowledge formation, and technology development?
  • How do they co-exist with other agro-technological cultures? What is their impact on end-user engagement? What is the role and agency of IP?

Findings

  • Since 1995, apomixis research has oscillated between the status of an emerging technology, ‘protophases’ of technology development (liminal stages of deterritorialisation and reformulation of strategies and research trajectories) and, most recently, basic research. This corresponds to a shift from a synthesis of plant breeding and genetics, to lab-based genomics research.
  • This ‘molecular turn’ in apomixis research constitutes a rupture with experimental systems grounded in plant breeding and ‘Green Revolution’ research paradigms. It reflects the encompassment of apomixis research within a longer-term historical trajectory in agronomy impelled by the drive to control seeds as commodity forms. The fixing of genomes, as promised by apomixis, would grant an unprecendented stability to this political economy, which has to contend with inherent variability within plant reproduction.
  • The historical emergence of PPPs is indicative of these wider trends and drives their consolidation.The IP regimes currently in development within the field provide preliminary templates for how an apomixis technology would operate.
  • PPPs enable public sector researchers to access selected technologies, expertise, and seed stocks, under IP restrictions, and benefit from cash support. In turn, the private sector can tap academic expertise and skills, keep abreast of developments in key research areas, and to a degree, exert influence over public research trajectories. The ‘co-innovation’ model for PPPs involves all partners as active participants in the research process.
  • Manipulable GM apomictic crops have supplanted ‘facultative’ apomicts derived from wide hybridisation of crop plants with wild apomictic relatives as a favoured technology model, further enabling IP control, although our research suggests this is driven by scientific rationales as much as commercial agendas.
  • End-user engagement is restricted within apomixis research. This restriction is often rationalised as a product of the current focus of scientists on basic research, although it is also necessitated by confidentiality and proprietary agreements within PPP agreements.
  • ‘Protophases’ within PPPs involve decisive moments of agenda-setting reflecting this political economy, precipitating conflict over research trajectories impelled by funding constraints, PPP governance structures, and commercial imperatives. Outcomes can exert significant influence over long-term research programmes compared with decisions taken at other phases of R&D.
  • Social scientific studies of technology tend to focus on developed or emerging technologies. Our findings suggest analysts should also attend to the protophase, this Kuhnian moment, and the social rationale for exclusion of viable technological models or ‘sideshadows’ which go undeveloped.

Policy implications

  • Greater flexibility within PPP agreements would enable the public sector to explore and capitalise on emergent opportunities at key junctures, which may not deliver immediate commercial benefits, but in the long-term could deliver significant ‘public goods’.
  • Longer-term funding cycles for frontier research could facilitate flexibility, and encourage diversification of agro-technological research, nourishing technological ‘heterocultures’.

Publications

Hughes, S. and Hodges, M., 'Apomixis and the Large Genome Collider', The Gen, The Newsletter of the ESRC Genomics Network, , March 2010.

Presentations

Hodges, M., 'The Politics of Emergence: Public-Private Partnerships and the Conflictive Dynamics of Frontier Research and Co-Innovation in Apomixis Technoscience', ‘Risky Entanglements: Contemporary Research Cultures Imagined and Practised’, International Conference, Institut für Wissenschaftsforschung, University of Vienna, June 2010.

Hodges, M., 'Becoming Public-Private: Emergent Technologies, the Private Sector, and the Sideshadows of Apomixis Technoscience', Center for Society and Genomics, Radboud University Nijmegen, ‘Ten Years After: Mapping the Societal Landscape of Genomics’, International Conference, Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, May 2010.

Hodges, M., 'The Apomixis Consortium: Identifying Best Practice for Productive Partnerships', CGIAR Alliance Deputy Executive / Private Sector Committee Workshop, 'Enhancing Research Productivity through PPPs', Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, Switzerland, November 2009. http://www.cgiar.org/psc/index.html

Hodges, M. and Hughes, S., 'Re-measuring Apomixis: The Role of Public-Private Partnerships in the Transition to the Molecular Paradigm in Apomixis Research', EGN 3rd International Conference, 'Mapping the Genomic Era: Measurements and Meanings', University of Cardiff, October 2009.

Hodges, M., 'Public-Private Collaboration and Technology Development: The Case of Apomixis', Departmental Seminar, Technology and Agrarian Development Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands, September 2009.

Hodges, M., 'Public-Private Partnerships and Co-Innovation in Plant Genomics: Case Studies from Apomixis Research', EGENIS Seminar, University of Exeter, June 2009.

Hodges, M., 'Architects of Emergence', ESRC Seminar Series 'Conflicts in Time: Rethinking "Contemporary" Globalisation' 2, 'Uncertain Futures: Planning, Temporality and Globalisation', Dept. of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh, March 2009.

Further information

References

Richards, P. 'Private Versus Public? Agenda Setting in International Agro-Technologies', in Jansen & Vellema (eds), Agribusiness and Society: Corporate Responses to Environmentalism, London: Zed Books, 2004.

European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC). 2004. Genomics and Crop Plant Science in Europe.