Last Monday (3 August) I came across an interesting article in The Guardian newspaper here in the UK. It was all about the success—or so it would seem—in developing a vaccine against the Ebola virus, the deadly pathogen that hit three countries in West Africa so dramatically over the past year. In particular, one photo caught my eye, which I have included below (and I hope no-one from The Guardian nor the photographer objects).
The development of this Ebola vaccine depended on rigorous scientific research and testing, and a little serendipity and luck as well in some cases. Isn’t science wonderful?
Not a scientist?
So it must come as a bit of surprise if I declare, here and now, that I never aspired to become a scientist, even though that’s what I spent more than 40 years doing. As a youngster, I was never enthralled by the moon and stars; dinosaurs didn’t pique my interest. On the other hand, I was quite a keen bird watcher, and had a general interest in nature and conservation. So while I ended up taking a science degree at the University of Southampton, I guess it could have gone the other way and I might have studied humanities instead. And that’s especially so given my deep interest in history over the past decade or so. I have even considered taking a history degree at the Open University in retirement, but have consigned that to the realm of fantasy. I don’t think I could take the discipline of formal study once again.
Paul Nurse has a passion for science
I can’t complain, however. Science gave me a good career and living, but I never developed a passion for it as described by Nobel laureate and President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, in the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 2012. It’s really worthwhile persevering for the whole 45 minutes as Nurse delivers a most erudite analysis (without referring to notes at any point) of the importance and relevance of science to and for society.
There’s much of what Sir Paul describes that I can empathize with. After all, my own work on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources was a contribution to so-called ‘Green Revolution’ agricultural research aimed at improving the livelihoods of poor farmers around the world and the hundreds of millions of poor who depend on staple crops for their daily well-being.
Did I do good science?
Only my peers can confirm that. I think I did some competent science that was successfully submitted for publication in internationally-recognized journals. There was nothing I did that was ground-breaking science. But in terms of my contributions to agricultural research, I like to think that fewer people went to bed hungry each night because of the research I had contributed. Managing the world’s largest collection of rice genetic resources in the International Rice Genebank, not only did we study the nature and scope of genetic variation in rice, but we also aimed to enhance the long-term survival of rice seeds in cold storage. The submergence tolerant varieties of rice developed by IRRI in partnership with scientists at the University of California, and now released throughout Bangladesh and India are already enhancing the productivity of rice farming. Several rice germplasm accessions tolerant of complete transient submergence are safely conserved in the International Rice Genebank Collection.
I felt much more comfortable as a research manager, with a team of much more competent and talented colleagues. My role was to develop a broad perspective on research needs, and prioritize which research to undertake. And to provide a research environment where my colleagues could be productive to the best of their abilities. I think that’s where my forte lay.
Design, luck, or serendipity?
Nevertheless, there are several things I was directly involved with, or decisions made, which merit some highlighting, with serendipity playing a significant role. As Sir Paul Nurse pointed out, it’s up to the scientist to recognize the significance of—and then exploit—observations and discoveries made.
My work on bacterial wilt of potatoes at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Costa Rica depended on recognizing the significance of diseased plants in a field trial that was set up originally to test potato varieties for adaptation to warm and humid climates. Having identified ‘resistant‘ plants, as well as the importance of the field testing site, we went on to establish the importance of a particular variety (Cruza 148) that went on to become one of the most important in East Africa.
In work at the University of Birmingham, with my colleagues Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and Dr Susan Juned, we discovered differential responses of cv. Record clones in terms of somaclone production. But that wouldn’t have been possible had we not taken a simple decision from the outset to number each stock tuber individually, and all the somaclones selected from each.
The application of molecular biology to study germplasm collections has come a long way since a PhD student of mine, Adi Damania, published a paper in 1983 using RAPD markers with wheat and barley landraces. Then, with colleagues at The University of Birmingham (Dr Parminder Virk, Brian, and Professor John Newbury – now at the University of Worcester), we published in 1995 one of the first—if not the first—paper on association genetics, based on studies of accessions in the International Rice Genebank Collection.
The experience of years
I’d like to think that the books I’ve written or edited have also contributed in some way to the discussion about the value of genetic resources and their importance as the planet faces the threat of climate chnage. And some of our thinking goes back to 1989 when the whole idea of climate change was far more contentious than today (unless you’re a Republican presidential hopeful).
The value of research metrics?
Some research has an impact, benefits society directly, other research is much longer-term. How can this be valued? Well, there’s a plethora of metrics to assess the value of published research such as citation indices, and others that frankly I don’t understand the meaning of or how they are calculated and applied. Journals have a so-called ‘Impact Factor’, and there’s great pressure on researchers to publish in high impact journals. Fortunately I never had to worry about these things when I worked at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s, and it was never raised as an issue when I was with IRRI. But there is growing concern about the use—and misuse—of research metrics, as highlighted in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper.
When I was teaching at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s, a monthly bulletin, Teaching News, was circulated to staff, by the School of Education, I believe. There was one article I remember quite vividly discussing the use and misuse of citation indices. Crude numbers don’t tell you anything. And to emphasize the point further, the article went on to compare two articles with very different citation indices. One, with a low index, was a piece of eminent scholarship about rural communities in South Wales, but cited infrequently simply because sociological studies in this field were not frequent. The other, in the crowded field on the rise of Naziism, had a very high index, because it had been cited so often—but mainly in a negative way.
I also saw something from IRRI the other day stating that the ORYZA2000 model had been cited more than 16,000 times in scientific publications. I’m sure most of those citations do reflect a meaningful application of the model, but it would be interesting to see beyond the raw metric.
Science should never be kept in the closet. Knowledge increases as ideas are shared, tested, and accepted or rejected in the course of scientific exploration. While I may not have been a dedicated scientist per se, I can also say “Thank you Science!” It was fun while it lasted.