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Guy Richard: a forward-looking innovator

Guy Richard, Head of INRA’s Environment and Agronomy Division for eight years, has been named Head of the Delegation for scientific expertise, foresight and studies (DEPE). This agronomist’s favourite subject? “Anticipating agriculture”. His method? Team leadership based on strategy and hands-on work.

Guy Richard © MAITRE Christophe
By Nicole Ladet - Eric Connehaye, translated by Emma Morton Saliou
Updated on 03/11/2019
Published on 02/12/2019

Guy jogs outside the city of Orleans on Sunday to sort out ideas: “I clear my mind – and I fill it.” It’s a welcome break in the week of a very busy man. Until 2018, he was entirely focused on the management and oversight of the Environment and Agronomy Division (EA), where he led nearly 1,000 staff members in 40 research units across 16 INRA research centres. He was often travelling for work, or in meetings – a “very enriching experience,” he says, looking back. From 2009 onwards, he also organised an annual exchange with Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU), as part of the International Associated Laboratory (LIA) on soil which he helped establish with the University of Lorraine. In April 2018, the tempo changed. Guy now travels between Orleans and Paris, where he is now Head of the DEPE at INRA’s headquarters. He is tasked with expertise, foresight and studies aimed at informing public decision-making and planning forward in the best interests of society and research strategy.

Strategy designed for people

I believe in collaboration

“I believe in collaboration” Guy Richard says immediately. He adds: “I like to let initiatives emerge and then support them; I like to see networks grow.” Attentive and open, Guy is highly active and empathetic in any discussion: for him, each person, each opinion counts. He is an enriching force in co-construction, and finds common denominators. At the end of the discussion, he summarises and offers practical ideas to take things further. From research to leading research teams, Guy Richard builds a shared vision by meeting, listening and sharing. “I like developing scientific strategy AND its implementation. I’ve been lucky enough to work on two division strategic plans,” he explains. When he joined the DEPE, he was aware that internal debate at INRA and external debate with the public needed support in order to fully promote the results of foresight and studies.

Combining scientific frontiers and applications in society

The scientific choices we make have impact

When Guy became head of the EA Division in 2010, his colleagues had questions: who do we work for? Towards what kind of agriculture? He looked to his own experience to build an answer – experience that includes his birth on the horizon of intensive wheat and corn farming in the Beauce region and his civic service mission1 in Nepal growing combined corn/finger millet crops in the middle Himalayas. Throughout his career, changes in perspective have often been radical!

From his first experience as a researcher at the INRA centre in Laon, where he studied environmental effects on plants, to working on the impact of agriculture on the environment, he has honed, adjusted and analysed his approach as a researcher. This led him to develop a deep conviction: more work was needed upstream to avoid the unwanted effects of certain crop practices in industrial agriculture rather than correcting them later. To this end, he focused his interest on ecosystem services, coordination between crops, between crops and livestock, within a landscape.. As division head, he has been committed to “sharing this vision” by encouraging all units and researchers to contextualise their work around different forms of agriculture. “I’ve tried to raise awareness among colleagues that their choices have consequences, and this should be evident.” In Guy’s view, the strategic choices of a division head should take into account applications in society as well as scientific frontiers: “we need to combine the two.”

A particularly “wonderful research experience” later came with the creation of INRA’s EcoServ metaprogramme on ecosystem services in 2012, at a time when the idea is rarely mobilised by INRA researchers. This is Guy’s first challenge: with the EcoServ unit, they launched “EcoServ” Tuesdays, a series of conferences with in-house and external participants, broadcast via video to the biggest audience possible. Looking back, Guy can say that the development of this metaprogramme also helped him in his role as division head: “It changed the way I looked at systemic approaches.”

Anticipating research

Making DEPE expertise a part of research programming

Guy Richard’s interest in expertise is rooted in his contribution to a scientific expert report on stocking carbon in French soil. Completed in 2002, the report establishes a methodology for this type of exercise at INRA. When researchers become experts, they contribute to a robust review of existing scientific knowledge on a subject, identify problems affecting different stakeholders, detect shortfalls and deficiencies in research, and bring controversial knowledge into the spotlight. “I’ve always encouraged EA Division researchers to take part in DEPE activities,” he says. As the new Head, Guy will be tasked with transitioning the DEPE into the new single entity created by the merger of INRA and IRSTEA in 2020. “We don’t intend to tamper with the quality of our expertise and foresight study cycles,” he explains. He is drafting proposals that will facilitate the development of the DEPE’s international positioning and further improve the promotion of produced expertise externally as well as internally, so as to enrich the Institute’s scientific strategy. “The Agrimonde-Terra foresight study2 carried out with CIRAD is a good example of our ability to work internationally,” says Guy. However he now plans to develop future action directly in a European or international framework. One possibility is to join forces with foreign research institutes and promote a given subject at the United Nations. Internally, he is working on a new cycle of studies and processing preliminary study requests from INRA’s executive team, and the first subject is endocrine disruptors. A new method of working with Scientific Directors will no doubt emerge.

All his experience – positive and negative – has taught Guy valuable lessons for the future: “Something that gets in our way that we manage to accept and move past can in fact be a source of ideas”...and a fertile path for INRA.

Notes:

1 VSNA: (the national volunteer service programme)

2 AgriMonde Terra: foresight study on land use and world food security in 2050

Mini-CV

  • 57, married, one son

Education

  • Degree in agricultural engineering from Paris-Grignon (1984), Doctorate in engineering (1988)
  • Accreditation to direct research in 2002 (UPMC Paris)
  • EMPRA 2009 Promotion
  • IHEST Auditor (2017)

Career

  • 1989-2004: researcher at the Laon agronomy unit
  • 2005-2010: Director of the soil science unit in Orléans
  • 2010-2018: Head of the Environment and Agronomy Division
  • 2014-2018: Director of the EcoServ metaprogramme
  • April 2018–now: Head of the Delegation for scientific expertise, foresight and studies (DEPE)