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Measuring the Spending Gap

It’s going to take a lot of agricultural research to meet the world’s future food needs. So far, say Nienke Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads, we’re falling short. Heidi Fritschel


t’s no secret that agricultural research is a good investment that can double

and even triple yields of crops and livestock. It’s also a necessary investment: global food supplies will need to rise by an estimated 70 percent to feed the world in 2050. So you might expect countries where food insecurity is high to be investing heavily in agricultural research and development (R&D). For the most part, you’d be wrong.

So say Nienke Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads of the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) initiative (

ASTI is the world’s scorekeeper for agricultural R&D spending, staffing, and institutional developments. Without ASTI, no one would really know how much developing countries are spending on agri- cultural R&D. And as Beintema says, “You can’t manage it if you haven’t measured it.”


With a team of five people based mostly in Rome, ASTI tracks down the data on R&D spending in about 60 countries around the world, with a special focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Te work is painstaking. It involves sur- veying hundreds of agricultural research institutes, government agencies, universi- ties, and private companies and persuad- ing them to take the time to share their data on who is spending what and how many researchers are involved in pursu- ing agricultural innovation. Te data are transmitted to Rome, where the ASTI team compiles and analyzes them with a network of national and international partners, and then publishes their find- ings. Te goal is to spread the word that spending on agricultural research matters.

ASTI grew out of small, ad hoc data collection activities that began during the mid-1980s at the International Ser-

vice for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in Te Hague. Beintema stud- ied economics at Groningen University in the Netherlands, where she worked on comparing labor productivity across countries. “Tat’s how I found out that I like crunching numbers,” she says. After graduating she took a job at ISNAR and started working on what is now the ASTI program.

ASTI was officially established in 2001 as a joint program between IFPRI and ISNAR. Beintema became its leader and soon after hired Gert-Jan Stads, who was returning to development economics after a stint doing online media work for a Google subsidiary.

Early on, ASTI drew financial support from CGIAR and IFPRI. But its work remained small in scale until 2008, when a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation brought in a consistent flow

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