Getting to know IRRI . . .

IRRI-logoand the CGIAR
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines (about 65 km south of Manila), was founded in 1960, the first of what would become a consortium of 15 international agricultural research institutes funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

IRRI from the air

Listen to CGIAR pioneers Dr Norman Borlaug and former World Bank President (and US Defense Secretary) Robert McNamara talk about how the CGIAR came into being in 1971.

I spent almost 19 years at IRRI, more than eight years at a sister center in Peru, the International Potato Center (CIP), and worked closely with another, Bioversity International (formerly known as the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – IBPGR – from its foundation in 1974 to October 1991, when it became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute – IPGRI – until 2006).

Who funds IRRI and the other centers of the CGIAR?
IRRI and the other centers receive much of their financial support as donations from governments through their overseas development assistance budgets. In the case of the United Kingdom, the Department for International Development (DFID)is the agency responsible for supporting the CGIAR, it’s USAID in the USA, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Switzerland, for example. In the last decade, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major donor to the CGIAR.

During my second career at IRRI, from May 2001 until my retirement at the end of April 2010 I was responsible, as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC), for managing the institute’s research portfolio, liaising with the donor community, and making sure, among other things, that the donors were kept abreast of research developments at IRRI. I had the opportunity to visit many of the donors in their offices in the capitals of several European countries and elsewhere. However, very few of the people responsible for the CGIAR funding in the donor agencies had actually visited IRRI (or, if they had, it wasn’t in recent years). One thing that did concern me in working with some donors was their blinkered perspectives on what constituted research for development, and the day-to-day challenges that an international institute like IRRI and its staff face. I guess that’s not surprising really since some had never worked outside their home countries let alone undertake field research.

International Centers Week 2002
In those days, the CGIAR used to hold its annual meeting – International Centers Week – in October, and for many years this was always held at the World Bank in Washington, DC. But from about 2000 or 2001, it was decided to move this annual ‘shindig’ outside the Bank to one of the countries where a center was located. In October 2002, Centers Week came to Manila in the Philippines, hosted by the Department of Agriculture.

What an opportunity, one that IRRI was not going to ignore, to have many of the institute’s donors visit IRRI and see for themselves what this great institution was all about. Having seen the initial program that would bring several hundred delegates to Los Baños over two days – on the 28th (visiting Philippine institutions) and 29th October (at IRRI) but returning to Manila overnight in between – we decided to invite as many donors as wished to be our guests overnight. Rumour had it that the Chair of the CGIAR then, Ian Johnson (a Vice President of the World Bank) and CGIAR Director Dr Franscisco Reifschneider, were not best pleased about this IRRI ‘initiative’.

Most donors did accept our invitation, and we hosted a dinner reception on the Monday evening, returning some of the hospitality we’d been offered during our visits to donor agencies. This also gave our scientists a great chance to meet with the donors and talk about their science. Most (but not all scientists) are the best ambassadors for their research and the institute; however, some just can’t avoid using technical jargon or see past the minutiae of their scientific endeavors.

As the dinner drew to a close, I spread word that the party would continue at my house, just a short distance from IRRI’s Guesthouse. As far as I remember about a dozen or so donor friends followed me down the hill, and we continued our ‘discussions’ into the small hours. Just after dawn I staggered out of bed and, with a rather ‘thick head’, went to see the ‘damage’ in our living room, where I found a large number of empty glasses, and several empty whisky, gin and wine bottles. A good time was had by all! Unfortunately it was also pouring with rain, which did nothing to lift my spirits. Our program for the day had been developed around a series of field visits – we didn’t have an indoor Plan B in case of inclement weather.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how did we went about organizing the IRRI Day on the 29th October.

Getting organized
12213957474_757eaf1d74_oRon Cantrell, IRRI’s Director General in 2002 asked me to organize IRRI Day. But what to organize and who to involve? We decided very early on that, as much as possible, to show our visitors rice growing in the field, but with some laboratory stops where appropriate or indeed feasible, taking into account the logistics of moving a large number of people through relatively confined spaces.

How to move everyone around the fields without having the inconvenience getting on and off buses? In 1998 I had attended a symposium to mark the inauguration of the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas (self-proclaimed Rice and Duck Capital of the World). To visit the various field plots we were taken around on flat-bed trailers, towed by a tractor. We sat on straw bails, and each trailer also had an audio system. It was easy to hop on and off at each of the stops along the tour. However, we had nothing of that kind at IRRI and, in any case, we reckoned that any trailers would need some protection against the sun – or worse, a sudden downpour.

And that’s how I began a serious collaboration with our Experimental Farm manager, Joe Rickman to solve the transport issue.


Joe Rickman

We designed and had constructed at least 10 trailers, or bleachers as they became known. As far as I know these are still used to take visitors around the experimental plots when appropriate.


So, transport solved. But what program of field and laboratory visits would best illustrate the work of the institute? In front of the main entrance to IRRI are many demonstration plots with roads running between them where we could show research on water management, long-term soil management, rice breeding, and pest management. We also opened the genetic transformation and molecular biology labs and, I think, the grain quality lab. I just can’t remember if the genebank was included. The genebank is usually on the itinerary for almost all visitors to IRRI but, given the numbers expected on IRRI Day, and that the labs are environment controlled – coll and low humidity – I expect we decided to by-pass that.

The IRRI All Stars
From the outset I decided that we would need staff to act as guides and hosts, riding the trailers, providing a running commentary between ‘research stations’. I put word out among the local staff that I was looking to recruit about 20-30 staff to act as tour guides; I also approached several staff who I knew quite well and who I thought would enjoy the opportunity of taking part. What amazed me is that several non-research staff approached me asking if they could participate, and once we’d made the final selection, we had both human resources and finance staff among the IRRI All Stars.

L-R: Carlos Casal, Jr., Josefina Narciso, Ato Reano, (???), Arnold Manza, Crisel Ramos, Varoy Pamplona, Lina Torrizo, (???), Jessica Rey, Caloy Huelma, Beng Enriquez, Joe Roxas, (???), Sylvia Avance, (???), Mark Nas, Ofie Namuco, Estella Pasuquin, (???), Ninay Herradura, Lily Molina, Tom Clemeno, Joel Janiya.

The IRRI All Stars L-R: Carlos Casal, Jr., Josefina Narciso, Ato Reano, Reycel Maghirang-Rodriguez, Arnold Manza, Crisel Ramos, Varoy Pamplona, Lina Torrizo, Tina Cassanova, Jessica Rey, Caloy Huelma, Beng Enriquez, Joe Roxas, Remy Labuguen, Sylvia Avance, Ailene Garcia-Sotelo, Mark Nas, Ofie Namuco, Estella Pasuquin, Ria Tenorio, Ninay Herradura, Lily Molina, Tom Clemeno, Joel Janiya.

Once we had a trailer available, then we began planning and practising in earnest. I wanted my colleagues to feel confident in their roles, knowledgeable about what everyone would see in the field, as well as feeling comfortable fielding any questions thrown at them by the visitors.

I think some of the All Stars felt it was a bit of a baptism by fire. I was quite tough on them, and encouraged everyone to critique each other’s ‘performance’. And things got tougher once we had the research scientists in the field strutting their stuff during the practice runs. My guides were merciless in their comments to colleagues about their research explanations. Not only did we reduce the jargon to a manageable level, but soon everyone appreciated that they had to be able to explain not only what they were researching, but why it was important to rice farmers. And in doing so, to actually talk to their audience, making eye contact and engaging with them.

It was worth all the time and effort we spent before IRRI Day. Because on the day itself, everyone shone. I don’t think I’ve been prouder of my colleagues. After the early morning rain, the clouds parted and by 9 am when we started the tours, it was a glorious Los Baños day at IRRI. The feedback from the delegates, especially the donor representatives, was overwhelming. Many had, as I mentioned earlier, a blinkered view of research for development, and rice research in particular. More than a few had a ‘Damascene experience’. Many had never even seen a rice paddy before. I believe that IRRI’s stock rose among the donor community during the 2002 International Centers Week – due in no small part to their very positive interactions with IRRI’s research staff and the All Stars.

On reflection, we had a lot of fun at the same time. It was extremely rewarding to see how positive all the staff were about contributing to the success of IRRI Day. But that’s the IRRI staff for you. Many a visitor has mentioned as they leave what a great asset are the staff to IRRI’s success. I know from my own 19 years there. In fact we had so much fun that just over a week later we held another IRRI Day for all staff, following the same route around the field and listening to the same researchers.

Using camera-mounted drones, it’s now possible to give IRRI’s visitors a whole new perspective.




2 thoughts on “Getting to know IRRI . . .

  1. Beng says:

    Hi Sir, thank you for this very nice article. May I share it too with my friends in facebook?


    • Mike Jackson says:

      Hi Beng – please do. That’s why I write these ‘stories’, to share something of what I’ve experienced with anyone who might be interested.


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