The research and development (R&D) sector of the Australian sugar industry operates in a challenging and dynamic environment. Over recent decades, research issues in the sugar industry have become increasingly complex and the nature of R&D activities has changed to accommodate environmental and social objectives as well as addressing production or profitability (triple-bottom-line) objectives. In response to the challenge of increasingly complex research issues, the shortcomings of deductive research methodologies have been highlighted by some observers, and systems research has been promoted by others as an alternative approach. Furthermore, deficiencies in the traditional model of R&D, a linear sequence of research and development activities (basic research, applied research, extension, and adoption) have become evident with the passing of time and collaborative research arrangements have been encouraged by government and some research providers as an alternative R&D model.
Over the past decade the absolute level of funding allocated by government and industry to sugar R&D has remained relatively stable. However, because of the trend to an increasingly broader scope of research objectives, and the need for R&D to deliver tangible benefits to a broad audience including industry, government, and the wider community, the need to ensure sugar R&D activities are efficient, effective, and appropriate is more important than ever.
The aim of the research reported in this thesis was to contribute knowledge and understanding of the value of the collaborative mode of R&D in the Australian sugar industry, and to develop a rigorous and relevant systems evaluation framework to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and appropriateness of collaborative R&D activities at the project level. A mixed-method approach was adopted to achieve the aim of the study. Complementary research techniques were selected and implemented and included literature review, case study analyses, and an electronic survey.
An electronic survey of the population of researchers in the Australian sugar industry revealed that the majority of researchers in 2002 were involved in various forms of collaborative research. The survey results indicated researchers viewed the collaborative approach to research favourably despite most researchers acknowledging that there were many negative and positive attributes of collaborative research activity. Researchers also recognised that the performance of collaborative research activity could be improved. There was considerable diversity in opinion among researchers about the perceived factors contributing to the efficiency and effectiveness of collaborative R&D activity. To make some sense of this diversity, categorisation of factors by economics, management, sociology, and other disciplines demonstrated the appropriateness of adopting a systems approach to developing an evaluation framework to improve the performance of collaborative R&D activities.
The research revealed the historical dominance of the economic discipline in the evaluation of agricultural, as well as sugar, R&D activities. Furthermore, the majority of the population of researchers working in the Australian sugar industry in 2002 did not routinely implement evaluation principles to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and/or appropriateness of their research. They admitted to a lack of sound knowledge of the various forms and approaches to evaluation. However, researchers also indicated a willingness to learn more about research evaluation techniques and how to apply the principles appropriately to improve their research activities.
An appropriate framework for the evaluation of sugar R&D activities at the project level was not evident in the literature, thus a systems framework for the evaluation of sugar R&D projects was developed in the course of this research to address this gap in knowledge. Features of the framework included:
• participatory action research cycle comprising the four repeatable stages of diagnosis, planning action, taking action, and evaluation.
• three phases of collaborative R&D at the project level: project development, project implementation, and the post-project phase.
• three parallel streams of evaluation to address the following key questions:
Are the objectives appropriate?
How can the research process be improved?
What are the triple-bottom-line impacts of the project?
• creative and transformational thinking to enable researchers and stakeholders to develop a deeper systems appreciation of the R&D systems of process, structure, meaning and knowledge-power.
This study has provided insight into the importance of systems thinking and evaluation to improve the performance of the sugar R&D system. The aim of the study was achieved in that the research contributed to the knowledge and understanding of the value of collaborative research to the Australian sugar industry, and developed a rigorous and relevant systems evaluation framework to improve the performance of this form of research.