What is Systems Research?
Our Approach to Systems Research
When trying to define an elusive term like systems research, it's easier to start with what we know it is not.
Most agricultural field research is component research. Component research is easy to understand -- alter something, say, the amount of fertilizer two plots receive. Then measure something, such as the yield from each of the two plots. Assume the difference in yield resulted from the two different fertilizer rates and call that, well, your results.
Much good information has been gained from well-conducted component research, but one shortcoming of a component view is that sometimes a solution to a problem creates new problems to be solved. Using the fertilizer example above, perhaps the increased rate of fertilizer leached into the water table or promoted rampant weed growth.
Still the component approach prevailed as long as increased yield was the primary goal of agricultural research. However, when society began demanding more of agriculture than bushels per acre, suddenly researchers had to consider environmental regulations, farm family quality-of-life expectations, consumer demands and a host of other concerns.
Revisiting that fertilizer example, today researchers might also need to keep track of whether quail habitat was impacted along the field borders or whether the fertilizer was approved for organic certification.
On that new, more complex research agenda, production is only one component of an agricultural system. In systems research numerous factors are constantly interacting so there is no easy way to clearly explain how all of these interactions produce a result. Compared to component research, a systems approach is more complicated, more expensive and usually requires more time to unravel the nature of relationships.
With those challenges in mind, Southern SARE has compiled, and in some cases developed, a series of educational materials that not only seek to demystify the term systems research as it relates to sustainable agriculture, but also to aid researchers applying for our grants in gaining a better understanding of what systems research is all about.