Embrace uncertainty: How research in plausible futures can help us make better investments

Better foresight means better investment. If society is going to spend wisely to fix our global climate crisis, researchers and policymakers must dedicate quality time to understand the potential challenges and embrace our uncertain future 

Scientists are a cautious breed. We usually don’t like uncertainties. We tend to be conservative about characterizing results when there are high levels of uncertainty. And often we don’t like to extend our predictions beyond just a few years – and even then we question their usefulness.  

But with the current state of the climate crisis, there is an increasing need for both scientists and policymakers to look ahead more. And that might mean embracing uncertainties to a much higher degree.   

By now, we have a sense that climate change is going to affect agricultural production globally, and we are already seeing the effects first hand. We have arrived at a point where the challenges are so big and so pertinent, that we need to get smart in how we orient our investments in research for development.  

Foresight activities are designed to help us anticipate what types of challenges we will be facing in the future. Traditionally, foresight analysis is used within the economic sciences to identify economic predictions. But the idea to integrate foresight analysis in development and agricultural sciences is now taking hold. 

Basically, the idea is simple: If we see a certain set of needs among producers and consumers now, we can anticipate a certain set of potential needs in the future. This allows us to better orient our investments in agricultural research towards maximum effect and impact in key areas over time.  

Foresight analysis looks analytically at both current and future challenges under the conditions of climate change in key agricultural areas in the future. It might be looking at the impact of a changing climate on yields and agricultural productivity, or how a changing climate may impact pest and disease frontiers, or understanding how pests and diseases may migrate along with changes in climate in a certain region.  

Foresight literacy 

Even though this research has inherent uncertainties, it provides guidance for future investments in research for development. But for foresight analysis to go mainstream — both in the scientific community and beyond – we need to address we need to promote what we might call “foresight literacy.” 

Foresight literacy is about understanding that yes, there are uncertainties in accurately predicting the future. But uncertainties do not mean that a certain outcome – for example, the collapse of a major crop-growing region due to pests, heat, and drought — is not implausible. 

The questions we need to ask when looking at plausible futures are can this conceivably happen? and does this outcome only represent some elements of potential futures? 

A focus on plausibility 

By focusing on plausibility, we can change the dialogue. We can emphasize that action is not about understanding the precision of a particular result in a particular field. Rather, it is about understanding what could happen in 10, 20 or 30 years, then implementing adaptive management focused on the most likely, plausible outcome. 

In many ways, this is not unlike the work of the IPCC, which essentially says, We can be pretty sure that something is going to happen, in spite of the fact that we are not entirely sure what.” The same applies to the future agricultural systems: We are not exactly sure what is going to happen, but we are sure that something is going to happen. 

Foresight analysis can inform research on very specific research areas, for example, the breeding of new seed varieties adapted to plausible scenarios of increased temperature and drought. Foresight analysis can also inform overall financial prioritization processes in research institutions, or even concrete policies within governments.   

Most importantly, foresight analysis can direct policymakers and scientists to anticipate some of the biggest challenges that we are going in future agricultural systems, thereby ensuring a food-secure future for a growing population on a rapidly changing planet.

STEVE DEAN PRAGER

Pricipal Scientst for Integrated Modeling and Strategic Foresight, Decision and Policy Analysis, CIAT

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The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) delivers research-based solutions that harness agricultural biodiversity and sustainably transform food systems to improve people’s lives. Alliance solutions address the global crises of malnutrition, climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation.

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