The Visit

Author // Dr. Robert S. Zeigler Categories // Bob's blog

What kind of guy is Bill Gates? We know, of course, that he has a keen intellect and a curious mind. I was forewarned that he asks probing questions and can readily detect (what is the polite word for cattle droppings?), and despises it being served up to him. No worries there from IRRI’s perspective. But what kind of person to spend a day with?

Describing some impending event as “focusing the mind” usually invokes visions of some impending catastrophe. In my case, though, a somewhat recent mind-focusing event was a call from Seattle. After being sworn to absolute secrecy, I was told that Bill Gates wanted to visit IRRI and, ‟how did April 16 sound?” I was, of course, delighted until I looked at my calendar and saw that we were scheduled to have our IRRI Board of Trustees meeting in Hyderabad, India, on that date. After a deep breath, I heard myself saying “I am terribly sorry, but most of the people Bill should interact with will not be at IRRI on that day. So, I am afraid that just will not work.”

I rang off with a heavy heart having told one of the most influential people in the world—OK, I told his staff—that it was not convenient for him to visit. Looking out my office window to what visitors often refer to as my “million dollar view”, I could see that, around the date of his proposed visit, our rice fields would be at their peak. What a missed opportunity.

Dante Palmes painting of IRRI landscape
The "million dollar view" outside my office window. (Painting by Dante Palmes)

A few days later, another call came in from Seattle and I was asked about April 8 or 9, though Bill would prefer the 8th. It turns out that Bill and his family would be visiting the region on vacation and he really wanted to see IRRI.

You can guess which date I selected.

The conditions were that the visit be kept absolutely secret and that we focus on science. Now, someone asking me to set up a visit to IRRI that focuses only on science for such a well-informed and influential person, with absolutely no pomp and circumstance, is like asking a very thirsty man if he would like a drink of water. Over the few weeks we had to prepare, it gradually sank in that the world’s wealthiest man, the philanthropist who has redefined what philanthropy means, not only wanted to visit IRRI while on vacation, he was willing to rearrange his schedule to suit ours.

I also knew that he and Melinda have pretty much only heard of our flood-tolerant Sub1 rice varieties that are benefitting the poorest of the poor in South Asia. Here was our chance to show Bill that we are not a “one-pony show.” And what a great morale boost for our staff to interact one-on-one with Bill Gates! Given the scope of our work, we had so much in the field that should be of interest to him without having to make any particular effort. Coming on the heels of an out-of-the-blue major funding cut from the CGIAR, I could not have asked for better timing.

Pamela Anderson, director for agriculture at the Gates Foundation, and Gary Atlin, senior program officer—both old friends—worked closely with us to prepare for the visit (I am guessing that it will go down in IRRI lore as THE VISIT, right up there with Lyndon Johnson’s in 1966). Our plan was simply, first, to show Bill how the rice science that transformed the world began, how our Institute takes the sustainability of those productivity gains seriously, and how we have moved the science forward over the years through the first Green Revolution. But the real heart of the visit was to show him how we are drawing on the simultaneous revolutions in genetics, genomics, molecular biology, bioinformatics, plant physiology, information and communications technology, computational power, and remote sensing—combined with ‛big dataʹ—to grow a second Green Revolution for those hundreds of millions of people left behind by the first.

We had the chance to put together a dream visit to showcase our many research programs and technologies that will help transform the lives of rice farmers all over the world, especially the poorest among them. The trick was that no one but a handful of the people putting things together could know who was coming. We had to weave a story that made sense historically, laid the foundation for future impact, and projected a plausible vision for how this impact would be achieved.

Gates Zeigler Ismail

I will not dwell on the many highlights of our technology showcases. We were able to show, however, not only the many different layers of what flood tolerance really means in farmers’ fields [photo above with Bill at right and Abdel Ismail, leader of the project, Stress-tolerant rice for Africa and South Asia] but that the solutions, while not silver bullets, are within our grasp. A key revelation was that we had succeeded in combining high levels of drought tolerance—originating from early investments by Gary Atlin back when he was a scientist with us at IRRI—with flood tolerance. This achievement and what it means to farmers growing rice in marginal environments is nothing short of staggering. This did not escape Bill. Our discussions around high-throughput phenotyping led to his peering under various sensor booms, into the guts of our precision plot threshers, and talking shop about sensor technologies with one of our sensor geeks who, later that evening said to me that never in his wildest dreams did he think he would get to crawl around machinery and discuss sensor technology with Bill Gates!

In short, we could show that we are well along the way of creating what should become a new platform for rice production for the next 50 years, not unlike how semi-dwarf varieties ended up being the platform for the Green Revolution of the last 50 years (think DOS and Windows as the platform for the PC revolution and the Cloud as the platform for the next revolution).

So, to restate the question I started with: what kind of guy? He was unassuming, unpretentious, gracious, and with a good sense of humor (well, he laughed at one of my jokes so I am sure my kids are rolling their eyes and thinking: “Dad, he has a weird sense of humor”). I have personally led similar tours of IRRI for many very high profile and influential people. This, of course, was the most scientifically rich among all of them. Never have I seen someone so personally engaged in the discussions, grasp subtle but fundamentally important arguments, and probe into areas until he understood. He obviously did his homework before coming (he is famous for that), but genuinely wanted to learn from our scientists.

At the end of the day, my sense of elation was tempered by a simple thought. I was pretty sure that if the next day he were to visit a pharmaceutical research institute, or a thought leader in information technology, he would be equally knowledgeable, engaged, and inquisitive.

It was true what Pamela told us right before the visit: “Bill respects knowledge, wants to learn, and you are the experts. Remember that and I assure you, you will enjoy your time with him.”

Every single one of us had a thoroughly good time.

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About the Author

Dr. Robert S. Zeigler

Dr. Robert S. Zeigler

Dr. Robert "Bob" Zeigler is an internationally respected plant pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in agricultural research in the developing world. He is the first Director General Emeritus of IRRI.

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