David Makowski, from meta-analysis to global food security

Director of research, David Makowski has made data analysis the backbone of his career. Today, that career has brought him face to face with the global challenges of agriculture and food security.

David Makowski, Research Director, Joint Research Unit for Agronomy (INRA, AgroParisTech). © INRA
By Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemann, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 02/14/2017
Published on 02/03/2017

In 1993, enamoured with the life sciences but not sure which road to follow, David Makowski joined the French Institute of Agriculture Paris-Grignon, which later became AgroParisTech. Many classes and many encounters with like-minded people later, he became interested in statistics and data analysis. Since then, the passion has never left him, and David has gone far over the years.

Data analysis, a research topic in its own right

With an agricultural engineering degree under his belt, freshly hired by INRA as an assistant researcher, David left for the Netherlands where he penned his first scientific articles at the University of Wageningen. For a year and a half, he worked on optimising large-scale agricultural output with the help of mathematical models, all the while broadening his skill set by combining mathematics with agricultural sciences. This professional experience only served to confirm his interest in data analysis.

When he returned to France, David joined INRA at its Occitanie-Toulouse centre. There, the budding researcher prepared his doctoral thesis on models and statistical methods for optimising doses of nitrogen fertilisers for common wheat.

Climbing the INRA ladder of success, David became research scientist, then research director, before finally taking the helm at the Joint Research Unit for Agronomy (INRA, AgroParisTech) in 2015.

The first step on the road to success

When he talks about data analysis, David focuses on the approach he uses, which follows a three-step logic: define objectives and hypotheses, use available data transparently, and analyse uncertainties in findings. He also evokes the many statistical methods that his work involves, notably meta-analysis which allows scientists to synthesise accumulated knowledge about strategic topics linked to agricultural output and its impact on the environment.

Analysing data to synthesise knowledge

When talking about his work, David takes pains to call attention to the many scientific articles he has contributed to that give visibility to his work or that of his collaborators and partners. Or, he focuses on the expertise he provides for the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (Anses) or the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and on his role in training engineers, doctoral candidates and young researchers in France and abroad, or his contributions to technical institutes.

Only one step separates experimental results and a full-fledged database, a parcel of land and a global scale… or almost. Indeed, nowadays, many agricultural challenges are approached from a global perspective: agricultural output and how climate change affect it, the consequences of cutting back on or increasing inputs, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name but a few.

For David, it was only natural to take on such a perspective, conscious as he is of the challenges the world is up against, whether related to adapting agricultural models, organising collectively to pool results from several institutes, or sharing knowledge, concepts and methods between disciplines.

Most recently, David joined the metaprogramme GloFoods, which focuses on transitions for global food security. The goal of the programme is to mobilise scientific know-how from different disciplines at INRA and Cirad to shed light on the different aspects of food security. David’s skills in data analysis and GloFoods were made for each other.

What’s next?

David is already thinking about what’s coming next. Given his soft spot for the issue of climate change, he would like to work with climatologists. But he is also interested in the relationship between livestock farming, agriculture and human food. There is no rush; time is on his side before David makes his next move.

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Environment and Agronomy
Associated Centre(s):
Versailles-Grignon

Mini-cv

44 years old

  • 2015 - Director of the Joint Research Unit for Agronomy (INRA, AgroParisTech)
  • 2011 - Research Director, INRA
  • 2001 - Research Scientist, INRA
  • 1996 - Assistant researcher (on contract), INRA
  • 2007 - Accreditation to supervise research (Université Paris-Sud)
  • 2001 - Doctoral thesis (AgroParisTech)
  • 1996 - Agricultural Engineering degree (AgroParisTech)
  • 2001 - Silver medal from the French Academy of Agriculture for his thesis.