Our people: Chun Song, CGIAR Initiative on Foresight

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Meet Chun Song, a Spatial Econometrician with the CGIAR Initiative on Foresight and the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, based in Rome, Italy. In this interview, Chun discusses what inspired her to pursue a career in economic analysis and foresight, what challenges and opportunities she seeks to address through her research, and the importance of collaboration in understanding the future of food systems. She also shares a good piece of advice for young researchers thinking about exploring the foresight and modeling route.  

How long have you been working with CGIAR and the Foresight initiative? How did you join?

Since January 2023. I learnt about the opportunity from a former FAO colleague. I knew CGIAR was an important partner of development agencies, and the Foresight Initiative has gained a lot of attention. I was excited about the opportunity to contribute to the research within CGIAR and the Foresight Initiative as a spatial econometrician. I luckily got the job.

What inspired you to pursue a career in economic analysis, foresight, and development, and how did you find your way into this field? What do you find most exciting about your work?

I have always been passionate about combining “counter-factual” (alternate universe! How exciting!) and “geography” (maps are the best invention ever!) in economic analysis, and the field of economic foresight and modeling provides this opportunity.  I am especially excited about how different foresight scientists have different (or shared) understanding of these two concepts when we work together. This makes every foresight study an engaging exploration.

In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing challenges or opportunities in the current food systems landscape that you find particularly intriguing or important to address through research?

One challenge is how to model the interconnected factors in the food system while being able to tease out the impact of each individual factor. Another challenge is how to model the location-specific impact of policies and drivers on food systems, while being able to reveal the general picture. These challenges call for a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on insights from agriculture, economics, geography, and environmental science. It also makes the work interesting because we collaborate with different experts.

As a young scientist entering this field, what are your goals and aspirations for contributing to analysis and development research?

My goal is to blend more of a spatial component into development research. For example, in an ongoing project with other Foresight colleagues, we aim to understand the impact of both climatic and institutional factors in affecting water management. We start with a non-spatial approach to show a broad picture, then move to a spatial analysis to reveal the complexity and spillover effects in targeted areas. In this type of work, my aspiration is to contribute some novel insights that are otherwise veiled under a non-spatial lens.

Collaboration is crucial in research initiatives. How do you approach collaboration with fellow researchers (across CGIAR and beyond), and what kind of interdisciplinary perspectives do you believe are valuable in understanding the future food systems?

I approach collaborations in two ways: for a project that I am leading, I invite fellow researchers who have complementary knowledge to work together. For research that I find interesting, I reach out and explain what I can contribute. Understanding the complex dynamics of the food system often requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone and engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations that we have around CGIAR.

Do you have a piece of advice for young researchers thinking about exploring the foresight and modeling route? Where should they start? 

Perhaps begin by sharpening your skills within the foresight realm but remain open to learning from fellow researchers with different expertise. As a starting point, try to introduce your current research to another foresight scientist. (And I would love to learn how it goes. I am always interested to know whether it is easier or more challenging than explaining your work to your grandmother!) This exercise will not only help you refine your own foresight “hammer” but also broaden your perspective by understanding how your research is perceived by those with different backgrounds.

What do you enjoy doing when not thinking about foresight & food systems? And speaking of food, what are some of your favorite dishes?

When I am not thinking about food systems, I think about food! I have a group of very dear friends in Rome who make this place home for me. I like to cook Italian food for them, but since I also like experimenting, this becomes “fusion Italian food” and, I must confess, makes my friends a little nervous (laughs).

Photo courtesy of Chun Song. Interviewer: Evgeniya Anisimova, CGIAR Foresight Initiative communications lead. 

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