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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Future Directions in Biological Systems Simulation - A Role for ICASA?

item White, Jeffrey
item Hoogenboom, Gerrit - UNIV OF GEORGIA
item Van Ittersum, Martin - WAGENINGEN UNIV
item Jones, James - UNIV OF FLORIDA

Submitted to: Biological Systems Simulation Group Proceedings
Publication Type: Proceedings
Publication Acceptance Date: February 15, 2006
Publication Date: April 13, 2006
Citation: White, J.W., Hoogenboom, G., Van Ittersum, M., Jones, J.W. 2006. Future Directions in Biological Systems Simulation - A Role for ICASA?. Biological Systems Simulation Group Proceedings.

Technical Abstract: The International Consortium for Agricultural Systems Applications (ICASA) advances systems research in agriculture and natural resource management by promoting the development and application of systems analysis tools and methodologies. This goal emphasizes, but is not limited to, simulation models. This priority recognizes their increasing role in decision support efforts and in joint learning of researchers and decision makers working at scales ranging from the plot or field to national or regional levels. ICASA emerged from two major agricultural systems-oriented programs from the 1980s and early 1990s: IBSNAT (International Benchmark Soils Network for Agrotechnology Transfer; Uehara and Tsuji, 1993 & 1998) and SARP (Systems Analysis and Simulation for Rice Production; Ten Berge, 1993). Factors justifying the quest for greater collaboration included: • The need for high quality data for developing and evaluating crop models. • The difficulty of obtaining crop model inputs across space and time for real world problems. • The time and resources necessary to develop, evaluate, document, and maintain crop models. • The continuing focus on simulating potential- and water-limited yield vs. recognized limitations of models in simulating actual yields in farmers' fields. Early on, ICASA anticipated that supporters of international development would invest heavily in consortium activities. This optimism appeared well founded given concerns over sustainability and the widespread belief that information technologies (IT) could catalyze rapid economic development. Encouragingly, the Dutch government funded the “Ecoregional Fund to Support Methodological Initiatives in Agricultural Research” ( While not formally linked to ICASA, various of the Fund’s projects involved ICASA members and emphasized software tools using data standards. In a period of increasing research costs and decreasing funding, however, strong expressions of “moral support” did not translate into further funding, and ICASA reluctantly concluded that substantial funds were unlikely to come to the consortium. At the same time, research priorities, which originally had focused on plot and field scale issues, were shifting increasingly to farm or regional scales. In 2005, ICASA was reorganized with a “zero-budget” philosophy that emphasized promotion of systems research through Internet-based fora including its web site (, a bulletin board (, and a listserver. The consortium now has no budget, and membership requires no dues. Potential members only have to agree to actively participate in ICASA-related activities by: • Contributing documented, tested models or modules using ICASA standards and protocols. • Contributing data sets for use in developing and evaluating models for agriculture and natural resource management. • Contributing software tools that facilitate use of ICASA standards and protocols. • Assist in defining and maintaining data standards in order to promote interchange. • Assist in defining protocols for module design in order to promote module interchange. • Developing applications of ICASA tools, explaining their aims and the techniques used. • Promoting ICASA’s goals through training, workshops, symposia and other means. To provide more structure and focus to its activities, ICASA organizes working groups on specific topics. The first two groups addressed intellectual property rights (IPR) and data interchange standards. The IPR group developed a set of guidelines for dealing with IPR, providing links to other IPR sites and examples of licensing statements ( The standards group revised the previous ASCII-formatted standards (Hunt et al., 2001) and is adapting the standards to relational database and XML formats. Standards are expected to evolve with research interests and advances in IT. Recently formed groups include sugar cane modeling (through the International Consortium for Sugarcane Modeling), parameter estimation and data assimilation, and gene-based modeling. For ICASA to play a major role in shaping biological systems simulation, the working groups must evolve into resources that truly enhance the productivity or impact of systems research. Other Internet resources deal with agricultural systems applications, but two features that distinguish ICASA are its very broad international membership and its emphasis on promoting collaboration through defining joint standards and protocols. Being truly international provides participants a great diversity of viewpoints and resources. This includes access to data sets from the ICASA Date Exchange (; Bostick et al., 2004), which currently has 56 modeling data sets from 10 countries, and to software tools (, such as the AFRC2 winter wheat model (Porter et al., 1993) and the Introductory Crop Simulation (ICSim) for DSSAT v3.5, which can create and edit crop management files to be run with the DSSAT crop simulation models. The intention is to provide open access to source-code, as far as possible within the IPR policies of different organizations. Perhaps the biggest challenge for ICASA is to overcome the sometimes surprising inertia of the systems simulation community. Model building per se too often seems like an end in itself with little real concern for contributing new knowledge or generating real impact. Another concern is that researchers seem to prefer monopoly-like control over field data. A direct assault or even a management driven, top-down attempt to change this culture is unlikely to alter these practices. Rather, ICASA expects that evolutionary improvements will come as the benefits of easily interchangeable software modules, tools and data sets become apparent.

Last Modified: 7/27/2016
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