A July Christmas Carol: visiting the past, present, and future of rice research

Categories // Bob's blog



Interview with Dr. Robert Zeigler on winning the BBVA award

During the last month I had the opportunity to view rice research from three very different perspectives: past, present and that yet to come. It was not as chilling as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, but for a guy who has spent most of his professional life working on rice I did get goose bumps of excitement more than once.

My wife and I had the great fortune to represent IRRI at the BBVA Foundation Headquarters as the Institute received the 2010 BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the area of Development Cooperation. The award recognized the great contributions that IRRI has made in improving the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people through the application of high quality science to real world problems. I shared the stage with a group of awardees that only reinforced the magnitude of this recognition. Each awardee had made contributions that fundamentally changed the way the world works or is viewed. Their impacts ranged from the discoveries that gave rise to the catalytic converter, creation of non-embryonic human stem cells, through profound economic insights, a reframing of the debate on global warming, and deep ecological and sociological insights, to a form of music that demanded an entirely new way to write its score.

Over the three days that we spent together in Madrid each awardee privately shared with me their admiration for the work that IRRI does. In all of my days as a scientist I never imagined that I would have the chance to engage in several lengthy conversations on the biology of tropical ants with E. O. Wilson (whom I now comfortably call “Ed”) or the interaction of scientific research and global economies with Nick Stern and Peter Hansen. What struck me was that the awardees were modest and dedicated people who as far as I could tell did not seek the limelight, nor promote themselves. I was reminded of the tremendous staff at IRRI who, over its history and almost without exception, have shown the same level of dedication, humility and hard work.  That the Institute’s glorious achievements over the past 50 years were recognized in this company gave me a sense of pride that I hope all who work, or have worked, with IRRI can share.

I then travelled to Huntington Beach, California, (the original “Surf City” – frankly the appeal is lost on me) to speak at the 128th Annual Convention of the American Seed Trade Association, then on to Washington DC for a Feed the Future event organized by USAID. In both these events I was asked to share our latest advances and explain how these can impact on the lives of the poor today.  I confess that I have become somewhat blasé about the range of exciting – I think revolutionary is probably more accurate – technologies that we are rolling out today: our work in genomics and its translation into varieties that are reaching poor farmers today; our innovative integration of long – term and multilocation trials with crop models and modern IT and communications technology to reach farmers in ways we never even imagined five years ago; our vision to create a C4 rice and see to it that Golden Rice reaches poor and hungry children; maintaining productivity gains in the face of dynamic pests and pathogens; understanding the nature of the rice grain and what makes for good quality; our many efforts to change the way rice is grown to meet the challenges of changing rural economies, changing societies, and a changing climate; and, our extraordinary array of partnerships that has placed us at the forefront of the CGIAR change process through the Global Rice Science Partnership.

After my talk in California, Lawrence Kent of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation approached me to remark how much he enjoys my presentations when he hears me speak; but, he said it must be really easy to talk about what IRRI does as we have such a strong and diverse program. He is right. You would have to be a really boring fellow if you could not make a good story from all that IRRI has to offer. World Food Prize Laureate Prof. Gebisa Ejeta, was effusive on IRRI’s ability to convene such an array of partners so effectively. Perhaps somewhat naively, I said that if you have a really, really good product that people really need and want, then it is not that difficult to bring very different groups to the table. This brought me back again to our amazing staff. Our people can sit at the table with the world’s leading basic scientists or squat in the shade of a mango tree with the poorest of the world’s rice farmers and be credible to both. This is not an easy thing for anyone; but, our people pull it off every day!

Just last week I went to York in the United Kingdom to present a lecture to the Gatsby Plants Summer School. This program targets the best and brightest of UK first year undergraduates with the hope of directing them towards careers in plant sciences. So, in many ways this was a glimpse into the future… tomorrow’s scientists developing in ways that no one, least of all themselves, really knows. Their energy and enthusiasm were contagious and it was such an invigorating environment to be in. What was best was their immediate engagement with IRRI’s approach of asking fundamental scientific questions for a practical reason. Too often, many said, were they placed in the predicament of having to make a choice between doing high quality, cutting edge research, or working towards development goals. With IRRI’s example they could see clearly that this is a false dichotomy. Indeed such a choice is a fundamental fallacy in the way so many of our colleagues – especially, I am sad to say, in the development community – view the relationship between science and development. I am optimistic that this new generation of plant scientists, charged with a social and environmental agenda that has not been seen for decades, will transform their world in a way that we, the older generation, only dreamed of when we were starting out.

So, I feel a little like Ebenezer Scrooge on that fictional Christmas morning long ago when he awoke to the knowledge that he could not change the past, though much of it was indeed good; that the present is what it is; but, the future is what not we, but today’s youth, will make it.