Call for Proposals: Economics of Research and Innovation in Agriculture

Feeding the world's growing population is one of the most critical policy challenges for the 21st century. With tightening constraints on natural resources, such as water and arable land, agricultural innovation is quickly becoming the most promising path meet the nutrient needs for future generations. To feed a growing population, existing agricultural land and crops will have to be used more intensely to produce higher yields per acre. Land not currently used or usable in agricultural production will have to be accessed through improvements in agricultural methods or innovations in crops. Increasing variability in climate raises the need for developing new crops that can tolerate droughts, heat, or extreme cold.

At the same time, in many of the world's wealthier countries the share of GDP devoted to agricultural R&D has declined in the last three decades, and there is active discussion of the returns to public and private spending on agricultural R&D. Although surveys of the voluminous literature appear to show some declines in the returns to agricultural R&D over time, these apparent decreases may be due to changes in methodologies or other time-varying study attributes. In any case, measuring returns to R&D, in agriculture or any other sector, is notoriously difficult. Whether there are important unmeasured non-market benefits is an open question.

To provide new evidence on the returns to R&D in agriculture as well as other sectors, the NBER plans a project on “Research and Innovation in Agriculture.” This project is supported by the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It will be led by NBER Research Associate Petra Moser of New York University. The project will explore the role of public and private sector support for agricultural R&D, the effect of different institutional structures (such as business-university partnerships) on the conduct and impact of R&D, differences in R&D spending and outcomes across countries, differences in intellectual property rights, as well as other factors that encourage the adoption of promising new agricultural technologies and crops. Because many of the issues that arise with regard to agricultural R&D parallel those in other sectors, the project will also consider the lessons of research activity in non-agricultural fields for agricultural R&D.

The project will consist of several distinct sub-projects carried out by college- or university-based research teams. The findings will help to inform the design of public policies during the coming decade. The NBER welcomes research proposals on topics that include, but are not limited to:

* The Effects of Intellectual Property Rights on Agricultural R&D. How has the introduction of patent protection for plants and other types of living organisms affected agricultural R&D? How has it affected the development of plant-based drugs? Have intellectual property rights influenced the direction of technical change, across countries or across crops? Have patent rights encouraged private sector investments in the risky processes of agricultural R&D? Or have investments in patent protection displaced investments in R&D? Do patents disproportionately favor investments by small or large firms?

* Industry Structure & R&D Activity.How does the degree of concentration in the industries that conduct agriculture-related R&D affect the level of R&D activity? What have been the effects of major mergers and acquisitions on R&D by small and large firms? How has the entry of new players influenced the research investments of incumbents? What are the contribution of smaller, fringe firms to industrial R&D? How has their productivity been affected by increased concentration?

* Public Sector R&D Support. What does available evidence suggest about the returns to public sector R&D, in the agriculture sector and by comparison in other sectors? What are the measurement challenges of analyzing these returns? How has public sector R&D influenced patenting activity across industries? What are the contributions of agricultural innovations to well-being and health, both in absolute terms and relative to innovations in other fields such as health care?

* Comparing Social and Private Returns. Who benefits from public sector R&D in agriculture and the life sciences? What are the most salient productivity effects of public sector R&D? How successful are firms who invest in R&D able to protect their investments from competitors? How strong are spillover effects across firms? How broad are spillovers, and in what directions do they flow – for example, from universities to the private sector, from large to small firms? How important are spillovers from investments in broader public science to agricultural science and innovation?

* Government – University – Industry Partnerships. What have been the contributions of university scientists to private sector research? Does university research benefit from connections to private sector research? What has been the role of immigrant scientists in U.S. agricultural R&D, historically and in recent years? How do changes in Immigration policy affect the conduct of agricultural and other R&D? What are the channels by which findings from agricultural R&D diffuse? What are the differences in diffusion mechanisms across developed and developing countries?

* Big Data and Agricultural Innovation. How has the rise of detailed information at the field-crop level affected agricultural productivity? What is the role of data science in agricultural innovation, and how does improved data and monitoring affect the returns to other forms of R&D? How effective are new technologies, such as mobile apps in disseminating relevant knowledge from agricultural R&D? What are the roles of social networks?

* Agricultural R&D and Health Outcomes. What have been measurable contributions of agricultural R&D to food security? What have been contributions to the health status of adults and children?

* R&D in Support of Sustainable Agriculture. How effective is private and public sector R&D in developing crops that will address increasing variability in climatic conditions? How did private and public sector R&D historically contribute to addressing climate shocks, such as the American Dust Bowl? What are the contributions of plant science to reducing the environmental impact of intensive agriculture? How have regulatory restrictions on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) affected the rate and direction of R&D in Europe and the United States?

Researchers interested in studying these or other related questions may submit short proposals – no more than five pages, single spaced, including references, tables, graphs, and other supplementary material, in PDF format - by April 30, 2018. Proposals may be submitted at:

Each proposal should describe the research question to be studied, the data and methods, and if possible present preliminary findings. It should also indicate the researchers who will be carrying out the project, and include a conflict of interest statement that describes any financial or other interests of the researchers that might bear on the proposed work, and in particular that discloses any ties to the agriculture industry. Proposals from researchers with and without NBER affiliations are welcome, as are proposals from early career scholars and from researchers from under-represented minority groups.

Researchers who submit proposals that are selected for inclusion in the project will be notified by May 31, 2018. For projects that are funded, the NBER will be able to provide an honorarium of $6000 to the author team. Research teams that take part in this project will be expected to participate in a research pre-conference that will be held in Cambridge, MA, on November 8, 2018. There will be a capstone research conference in May 2019 in Washington D.C. at which researchers will share their findings with policy experts. If there is sufficient interest from project authors, the NBER will consider including these papers in an edited volume on agricultural R&D.

The NBER will cover the cost of domestic travel and hotel expenses for up to two authors per paper and for discussants at the conference. Questions about this conference may be addressed to

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