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Translating research into impacts: 30 case studies

Using a suite of case studies, INRA researchers developed a unique methodology to understand how research can yield impacts. Their work also reveals what the institute can do to promote innovation. Below is an interview with Pierre-Benoit Joly and Laurence Colinet, who both led the study.

Lit fluidisé de méthanisation. Collaboration INRA.. © INRA, MOLETTA Renatto
By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 06/25/2015
Published on 09/19/2014

It can be challenging to translate the results of fundamental research into societal impacts. For instance, how can knowledge about genomes or nitrogen mineralization dynamics help develop new products or promote changes in farming practices? The pathway between academia and society is often long and rarely straight; indeed, it is sometimes rather circuitous. That was one of the findings of the ASIRPA project (1), which was launched by INRA’s general directors in January 2011. It was inspired by discussions that took place during the institute’s most recent five-year evaluation, when questions arose as to the broader relevance of the work being done at INRA.

Why did you decide to base your research on case studies?

Pierre-Benoit Joly: There are two general methods for evaluating the applied importance of research. The first focuses on the research’s economic impacts in a given sector, by estimating the returns achieved for the research funds invested. This method is quite useful, and it shows that rates of return are usually very high. However, this technique remains myopic because it only focuses on the research’s economic benefits. Furthermore, it cannot be used to uncover the mechanisms that are generating impacts. The second method uses case studies. It can be utilized to flesh out the details of the paths that lead to impacts (i.e., impact pathways). However, its disadvantage is that it relies on the analysis of a collection of different research “stories”, which can make it difficult to draw more generalized lessons. We have developed an approach that uses standardized case studies, making cross-case comparisons and broader conclusions possible (2). Each case study contributes unique information and is associated with different types of impacts. Some case studies involve research whose impacts are largely economic. For instance, in France, the economic value of genomic selection (3) in dairy cattle is estimated to be 1–2 billion euros. Another example is the more judicious use of nitrogen fertilizers, which has resulted in savings of 4 billion euros over 25 years and has helped protect the environment. However, most cases have more than one type of impact. In the fight against scrapie in sheep, there were both political and health-related impacts; genetic tools prevented the need for massive culling when the BSE epidemic hit.

What sort of lessons can be drawn from your work?

Laurence Colinet: Our research has allowed us to scientifically confirm some ideas that were already more or less accepted or that seemed intuitive. First, impact pathways for agricultural research are long: on average, 19 years elapse between the beginning of a project and the manifestation of its impacts. That is why we need to proceed with caution: asking for rapid returns is sure to be counterproductive. Indeed, economists realized early on that the government should provide research funding because it takes such a long time for research to yield impacts. Our results also underscore the importance of research infrastructure, such as experimental facilities, collections of genetic material, livestock, and databases, as well as partnership schemes. Most of the case studies we examined involved interdisciplinary collaborations. For instance, when INRA researchers developed an electrodialysis method to stabilize the tartrates found in wine (4), they used membranes developed by the dairy industry, mathematical models, and enological research. One less intuitive finding is that the steps carried out by researchers and outside collaborators are not strictly consecutive (e.g., researchers first, industry second). Instead, they dovetail—both researchers and non-researchers step in at various points in the process. Furthermore, several case studies illustrated that the parties involved may change over time, which is why it is important to be careful when negotiating contracts that involve intellectual property rights. Finally, public policy and governmental regulations can either help or hinder innovation. For example, current regulations helped Naskéo (5) get established. It is a company that uses methanation to break down solid waste. In contrast, they have hindered the marketing of carpovirusine (6); an approval process for biological control agents used to protect plants is needed. It is also important to recognize that research can shape regulations. For example, results showing that even low doses of pesticides affected bees resulted in changes to regulatory approval of pesticides.

Finally, what are the benefits and general importance of your methodological approach for INRA?

L. C.: Some of INRA’s research divisions volunteered to try the methodology out when they were conducting their evaluations. The feedback has been positive. Our findings from this three-year project will also be helpful when the institute’s next five-year evaluation rolls around. This methodology puts to work tools that are already being implemented to examine project-level impacts; the difference is that they are now being applied at a new scale—that of the whole agricultural research center. Indeed, with a few changes, it should even be possible to apply our approach at a different research institute.
1. The ASIRPA project analyzed the impacts of publically funded agricultural research. It was launched in 2011 and carried out by INRA scientists from two research units, the Sciences and Society Unit (SENS) and the Joint Research Laboratory for Applied Economics (GAEL) in Grenoble, as well as by collaborators at the French Institute for Research and Innovation in Society (IFRIS).
2. See the sidebar below.
3. Genomic selection: see this article (in French) for more information.
4. Tartrate stabilization using membrane-based electrodialysis makes it possible to remove the precipitates found in wine without adding any stabilizing compounds. See this article (in French) for more information.
5. Naskéo: a start-up created in 2004 that exploits INRA-developed technology to break down mixed solid waste using methanation.
6. Carpovirusine: a biological control agent that largely targets codling moth infestations in apple trees.

Scientific contact(s):



Radar chart of impacts for the bisphenol A study. ASIRPA project: 2011-2014. Research on the risks associated with low doses of bisphenol A led to changes in food-packaging regulations. © INRA
Radar chart of impacts for the bisphenol A study. ASIRPA project: 2011-2014. Research on the risks associated with low doses of bisphenol A led to changes in food-packaging regulations © INRA

Once selected, case studies are examined using three analytical tools:

  • A timeline revealing the major events that shaped the impact pathway. These can include meetings, European projects, patent applications, and the creation of companies, for instance.
  • An impact pathway identifying the different players associated with the research’s inputs and outputs, as well as any intermediaries.
  • A radar chart graphing the different types of impacts generated.

The use of these three tools together makes it possible to conduct standardized analyses, generating data for institute-level comparisons.

for more information

See the presentation (in French) of the ASIRPA report given by François Houllier, head of INRA and AllEnvi,on July 3, 2014, at a symposium attended by the French Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (OPECST).
Download the full report (in French):

ASIRPA report