Turbocharging rice photosynthesis – the vision and legacy of John Sheehy, a brilliant scientist

Yesterday, I received the sad news that my dear friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), John  Sheehy, had passed away on 7 June after battling Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) for several years. He was just 76.

I first met John in 1995, when he applied for the position of Systems Modeller at IRRI. I was Chair of the Search Committee. John came to IRRI after a successful career at the Grassland Research Institute (GRI) in Hurley, Berkshire, until it closed in 1992. His groundbreaking (and award-winning) work at GRI on nodulation, gaseous diffusion, and nitrogen fixation in grassland legumes, and other aspects of crop physiology focused on yield potential.

I knew the first time I spoke with John he was someone who would bring a very different scientific perspective to IRRI’s research. And that’s just what he did. He wasn’t some fresh-faced graduate or postdoc expected to toe the line in terms of rice science orthodoxy, so to speak. Always polite, he often challenged the perspectives and approaches of some IRRI old timers who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate John’s breadth of quantitative expertise. He had graduated with a BSc degree in Physics, completed an MSc in Electronics, and then studied for his PhD in ecophysiology under Professor John Cooper, CBE FRS at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth.

In coming to IRRI, he led research on and supported breeding the so-called New Plant Type (NPT) that was expected to push the yield barrier in rice.

Setting up the Applied Photosynthesis and Systems Modeling Laboratory, John came to the conclusion that a completely new approach was needed if rice yields were to be increased significantly. That’s because photosynthesis in rice (known as C3 photosynthesis) is inefficient compared to the system (C4) in other cereals like maize. John began to develop ideas to turbocharge photosynthesis by introducing ‘C4’ traits into rice, thereby aiming to increase photosynthetic efficiency by 50%, as well as improve nitrogen use efficiency, and double water use efficiency.

Rather than me trying to explain the rationale for this vision, why not listen to John explaining the need for a C4 rice.

John appreciated that IRRI could not realize this dream of a C4 rice alone. So he set about persuading, and bringing together, a group of many of the best scientists worldwide in a C4 Rice Project, that is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The continuing Project is an important part of John’s scientific legacy.

It is now coordinated by Professor Jane Langdale, CBE FRS at the University of Oxford.

At the time of his death, and after 20 years of research, C4 rice is not yet a reality, but significant progress has been made.


John’s scientific output was prodigious, and his many publications appeared in some of the best rated journals in his field, like Field Crops Research for example, a reflection of his research stature at IRRI (and before he joined IRRI). You can check his publications on Google Scholar.

He also waded enthusiastically into the controversy over the System of Rice Intensification or SRI, questioning—based on solid quantitative analysis of yield potential in rice—the yield claims of SRI adherents.


John retired in 2009 and returned to the UK. Before leaving IRRI, he met with Gene Hettel (former Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, and ‘IRRI Historian’) to record his thoughts on rice science and the challenges that IRRI would face.


In 2012, John was recognized in the New Year Honours (see page N.24) with an OBE for services to agricultural research and development, which was conferred during an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 14 February.

John receiving his OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales (L), and after the ceremony with wife Gaynor (L), and daughters Isabel (L) and Rhiannon (R).

In July 2014, John was honoured as a Fellow of his alma mater, Aberystwyth University.


In 2011, Steph and I joined John and Gaynor’s many friends and relatives to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

L-R: Rhiannon, Gaynor, John, and Isabel

While at IRRI, John had taken enthusiastically to golf, and could be seen almost every weekend out on the golf course south of Los Baños where he had become a member. On his retirement to the UK, he was unfortunately unable to continue with this passion, due to bouts of poor health.

After I retired in 2010 back to the UK, John and I kept in touch regularly by email, on the phone, or SMS, when either Wales or Ireland were doing well at rugby, especially in the Six Nations championship. He had divided loyalties, born in Wales of Irish ancestry.

The last time I saw John was in July 2017, when Steph and I spent the weekend with him and Gaynor in Marlow, and met up with other IRRI friends, Graham and Sue McLaren (who now reside in Canada),

L-R: Gaynor, Graham, Sue, Steph, John, and me.

It was also an opportunity for John and me to swap OBE investiture reminiscences. I had also been made an OBE in the same New Year Honours as John, but attended an investiture two weeks later on 29 February.


John was a far better scientist than I could ever aspire to be. I always sought his advice on science issues. In return, he asked my advice about how to manoeuvre through institute politics and management to influence his research agenda, especially after I had moved upstairs, so to speak, to join IRRI’s senior management team.

But what I remember most about John was his cracking, but rather dry, sense of humor. His generosity of spirit. He was an excellent host. Many’s the dinner or BBQ Steph and I enjoyed with John, at his house or ours.

Christmas Day 2006 Chez Sheehy. L-R: John, Sue McLaren, Steph, Catherine McLaren, me, Gaynor, Alex McLaren, and Graham McLaren.

John, you will be sadly missed. Rest in Peace!


This obituary (written by Gene Hettel) has just been published on the IRRI website.

And this obituary (written by me) appeared in The Guardian on 5 July 2019.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler


We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.


The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.


I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


 

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (3) Becoming a genebanker in the 1990s, and beyond

My decision to leave a tenured position at the University of Birmingham in June 1991 was not made lightly. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, and I’d found my ‘home’ in the Plant Genetics Research Group following the reorganization of the School of Biological Sciences a couple of years earlier.

But I wasn’t particularly happy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had become hostile to the university sector, demanding significant changes in the way they operated before acceding to any improvements in pay and conditions. Some of the changes then forced on the university system still bedevil it to this day.

I felt as though I was treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I had a significant teaching load, research was ticking along, PhD and MSc students were moving through the system, but still the university demanded more. So when an announcement of a new position as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk in September 1990, it certainly caught my interest. I discussed such a potential momentous change with Steph, and with a couple of colleagues at the university.

Nothing venture, nothing gained, I formally submitted an application to IRRI and, as they say, the rest is history. However, I never expected to spend the next 19 years in the Philippines.


Since 1971, I’d worked almost full time in various aspects of conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I’d collected potato germplasm in Peru and the Canary Islands while at Birmingham, learned the basics of potato agronomy and production, worked alongside farmers, helped train the next generation of genetic conservation specialists, and was familiar with the network of international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

What I had never done was manage a genebank or headed a department with tens of staff at all professional levels. Because the position in at IRRI involved both of these. The head would be expected to provide strategic leadership for GRC and its three component units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC), the genebank; the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER); and the Seed Health Unit (SHU). However, only the genebank would be under the day-to-day management of the GRC head. Both INGER and the SHU would be managed by project leaders, while being amalgamated into a single organizational unit, the Genetic Resources Center.

I was unable to join IRRI before 1 July 1991 due to teaching and examination commitments at the university that I was obliged to fulfill. Nevertheless, in April I represented IRRI at an important genetic resources meeting at FAO in Rome, where I first met the incoming Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (soon to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI), Dr Geoff Hawtin, with whom I’ve retained a friendship ever since.

On arrival at IRRI, I discovered that the SHU had been removed from GRC, a wise decision in my opinion, but not driven I eventually discerned by real ‘conflict of interest’ concerns, rather internal politics. However, given that the SHU was (and is) responsible, in coordination with the Philippines plant health authorities, to monitor all imports and exports of rice seeds at IRRI, it seemed prudential to me not to be seen as both ‘gamekeeper and poacher’, to coin a phrase. After all the daily business of the IRGC and INGER was movement of healthy seeds across borders.


Klaus Lampe

My focus was on the genebank, its management and role within an institute that itself was undergoing some significant changes, 30 years after it had been founded, under its fifth Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, who had hired me. He made it clear that the head of GRC would not only be expected to bring IRGC and INGER effectively into a single organizational unit, but also complete a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of the genebank’s operations and procedures, long overdue.

Since INGER had its own leader, an experienced rice breeder Dr DV Seshu, somewhat older than myself, I could leave the running of that network in his hands, and only concern myself with INGER within the context of the new GRC structure and personnel policies. Life was not easy. My INGER colleagues dragged their feet, and had to be ‘encouraged’ to accept the new GRC reality that reduced the freewheeling autonomy they had become accustomed to over the previous 20 years or so, on a budget of about USD1 million a year provided by the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.

When interviewing for the GRC position I had also queried why no germplasm research component had been considered as part of the job description. I made it clear that if I was considered for the position, I would expect to develop a research program on rice genetic resources. That indeed became the situation.


Once in post at IRRI, I asked lots of questions. For at least six months until the end of 1991, I made no decisions about changes in direction for the genebank until I better understood how it operated and what constraints it faced. I also had to size up the caliber of staff, and develop a plan for further staff recruitment. I did persuade IRRI management to increase resource allocation to the genebank, and we were then able to hire technical staff to support many time critical areas.

But one easy decision I did make early on was to change the name of the genebank.  As I’ve already mentioned, its name was the ‘International Rice Germplasm Center’, but it didn’t seem logical to place one center within another, IRGC in GRC. So we changed its name to the ‘International Rice Genebank’, while retaining the acronym IRGC (which was used for all accessions in the germplasm collection) to refer to International Rice Genebank Collection.

In various blog posts over the past year or so, I have written extensively about the genebank at IRRI, so I shall not repeat those details here, but provide a summary only.

I realized very quickly that each staff member had to have specific responsibilities and accountability. We needed a team of mutually-supportive professionals. In a recent email from one of my staff, he mentioned that the genebank today was reaping the harvest of the ‘seeds I’d sown’ 25 years ago. But, as I replied, one has to have good seeds to begin with. And the GRC staff were (and are) in my opinion quite exceptional.

In terms of seed management, we beefed up the procedures to regenerate and dry seeds, developed protocols for routine seed viability testing, and eliminated duplicate samples of genebank accessions that were stored in different locations, establishing an Active Collection (at +4ºC, or thereabouts) and a Base Collection (held at -18ºC). Pola de Guzman was made Genebank Manager, and Ato Reaño took responsibility for all field operations. Our aim was not only to improve the quality of seed being conserved in the genebank, but also to eliminate (in the shortest time possible) the large backlog of samples to be processed and added to the collection.

Dr Kameswara Rao (from IRRI’s sister center ICRISAT, based in Hyderabad, India) joined GRC to work on the relationship between seed quality and seed growing environment. He had received his PhD from the University of Reading, and this research had started as a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis there. Rao’s work led to some significant changes to our seed production protocols.

Since I retired, I have been impressed to see how research on seed physiology and conservation, led by Dr Fiona Hay (now at Aarhus University in Denmark) has moved on yet again. Take a look at this story I posted in 2015.

Screen house space for the valuable wild species collection was doubled, and Soccie Almazan appointed as  wild species curator.

One of the most critical issues I had to address was data management, which was in quite a chaotic state, with data on the Asian rice samples (known as Oryza sativa), the African rices (O. glaberrima), and the remaining 20+ wild species managed in separate databases that could not ‘talk’ to each another. We needed a unified data system, handling all aspects of genebank management, germplasm regeneration, characterization and evaluation, and germplasm exchange. We spent about three years building that system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). It was complicated because data had been coded differently for the two cultivated and wild species, that I have written about here. That’s a genebank lesson that needs to be better appreciated in the genebank community. My colleagues Adel Alcantara, Vanji Guevarra, and Myrna Oliva did a splendid job, which was methodical and thorough.

In 1995 we released the first edition of a genebank operations manual for the International Rice Genebank, something that other genebanks have only recently got round to.

Our germplasm research focused on four areas:

  • seed conservation (with Richard Ellis at the University of Reading, among others);
  • the use of molecular markers to better manage and use the rice collection (with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich);
  • biosystematics of rice, concentrating on the closest wild relative species (led by Dr Bao-Rong Lu and supported by Yvette Naredo and the late Amy Juliano);
  • on farm conservation – a project led by French geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham and social anthropologists Dr Mauricio Bellon and Steve Morin.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were no genome data to support the molecular characterization of rice. Our work with molecular markers was among use these to study a germplasm collection. The research we published on association analysis is probably the first paper that showed this relationship between markers and morphological characteristics or traits.

In 1994, I developed a 5-year project proposal for almost USD3.3 million that we submitted for support to the Swiss Development Cooperation. The three project components included:

  • germplasm exploration (165 collecting missions in 22 countries), with about half of the germplasm collected in Laos; most of the collected germplasm was duplicated at that time in the International Rice Genebank;
  • training: 48 courses or on-the-job opportunities between 1995 and 1999 in 14 countries or at IRRI in Los Baños, for more than 670 national program staff;
  • on farm conservation to:
    • to increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that
      influence it, and its genetic implications;
    • to identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of
      rice genetic resources.

I was ably assisted in the day-to-day management of the project by my colleague Eves Loresto, a long-time employee at IRRI who sadly passed away a few years back.

When I joined IRRI in 1991 there were just under 79,000 rice samples in the genebank. Through the Swiss-funded project we increased the collection by more than 30%. Since I left the genebank in 2001 that number has increased to over 136,000 making it the largest collection of rice germplasm in the world.

We conducted training courses in many countries in Asia and Africa. The on-farm research was based in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. It was one of the first projects to bring together a population geneticist and a social anthropologist working side-by-side to understand how, why, and when farmers grew different rice varieties, and what incentives (if any) would induce them to continue to grow them.

The final report of this 5-year project can be read here. We released the report in 2000 on an interactive CD-ROM, including almost 1000 images taken at many of the project sites, training courses, or during germplasm exploration. However, the links in the report are not active on this blog.

During my 10 year tenure of GRC, I authored/coauthored 33 research papers on various aspects of rice genetic resources, 1 co-edited book, 14 book chapters, and 23 papers in the so-called ‘grey’ literature, as well as making 33 conference presentations. Check out all the details in this longer list, and there are links to PDF files for many of the publications.


In 1993 I was elected chair of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, and worked closely with Geoff Hawtin at IPGRI, and his deputy Masa Iwanaga (an old colleague from CIP), to develop the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program or SGRP. Under the auspices of the SGRP I organized a workshop in 1999 on the application of comparative genetics to genebank collections.

Professor John Barton

With the late John Barton, Professor of Law at Stanford University, we developed IRRI’s first policy on intellectual property rights focusing on the management, exchange and use of rice genetic resources. This was later expanded into a policy document covering all aspects of IRRI’s research.

The 1990s were a busy decade, germplasm-wise, at IRRI and in the wider genetic resources community. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force in 1993, and many countries were enacting their own legislation (such as Executive Order 247 in the Philippines in 1995) governing access to and use sovereign genetic resources. It’s remarkable therefore that we were able to accomplish so much collecting between 1995 and 2000, and that national programs had trust in the IRG to safely conserve duplicate samples from national collections.

Ron Cantrell

All good things come to an end, and in January 2001 I was asked by then Director General Ron Cantrell to leave GRC and become the institute’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (that became Communications two years later as I took on line management responsibility for Communication and Publications Services, IT, and the library). On 30 April, I said ‘goodbye’ to my GRC colleagues to move to my new office across the IRRI campus, although I kept a watching brief over GRC for the next year until my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, arrived in Los Baños.

Listen to Ruaraidh and his staff talking about the genebank.


So, after a decade with GRC I moved into IRRI’s senior management team and set about bringing a modicum of rationale to the institute’s resource mobilization initiatives, and management of its overall research project portfolio. I described here how it all started. The staff I was able to recruit were outstanding. Running DPPC was a bit like running a genebank: there were many individual processes and procedures to manage the various research projects, report back to donors, submit grant proposals and the like. Research projects were like ‘genebank accessions’ – all tied together by an efficient data management system that we built in an initiative led by Eric Clutario (seen standing on the left below next to me).

From my DPPC vantage point, it was interesting to watch Ruaraidh take GRC to the next level, adding a new cold storage room, and using bar-coding to label all seed packets, a great addition to the data management effort. With Ken McNally’s genomics research, IRRI has been at the forefront of studies to explore the diversity of genetic diversity in germplasm collections.

Last October, the International Rice Genebank was the first to receive in-perpetuity funding from the Crop Trust. I’d like to think that the significant changes we made in the 1990s to the genebank and management of rice germplasm kept IRRI ahead of the curve, and contributed to its selection for this funding.

I completed a few publications during this period, and finally retired from IRRI at the end of April 2010. Since retirement I have co-edited a second book on climate change and genetic resources, led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program, and was honored by HM The Queen as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for my work at IRRI.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I can look back on almost 50 years involvement in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What an interesting—and fulfilling—journey it has been.


 

 

 

 

Three score and ten . . .

18 November 1948. Today is my 70th birthday. Septuagenarian. The Biblical three score and ten (Psalm 90:10)!

Steph and I have come away for the weekend to celebrate my birthday with The Beatles in Liverpool.

We are staying for a couple of nights at Jurys Inn close to the Albert Dock. Later this morning we’ve booked to visit the National Trust-owned Beatles’ Childhood Homes (of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). And after lunch, we will tour The Beatles Story where I’m hoping to see, displayed there, something special from my childhood.

How the years have flown by. Just a month ago, Steph and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. And I find it hard to believe that I started university over 50 years ago.

That got me thinking. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the years after I graduated, my time working overseas, about travel, and what Steph and I have been up to since retiring in 2010.

However, I written much less about my early years growing up in Cheshire and Staffordshire. This is then an appropriate moment to fill some gaps.

A son of Cheshire
I was born in Knowlton House nursing home in Congleton, Cheshire (map), third son and fourth and youngest child of Frederick Harry Jackson (aged 40), a photo process engraver, and Lilian May Jackson, also aged 40, housewife.

Mum and Dad, around 1959/60 after we had moved to Leek

My eldest brother Martin has been able to trace our family’s ancestry (mainly on my father’s side) back to someone named Bull, who was my 13th great-grandfather, born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border, just one of my 32,000 plus direct ancestors then. I must be related to royalty in one way or another (as are most of us), although looking at the occupations noted for many of them in various official documents (birth and marriage certificates, census data), we came a long way down the pecking order. Definitely below the salt! We’re Irish on my mother’s side of the family.

A punk before it was fashionable!

I am also a child of the National Health Service (NHS) that was founded in July 1948. In fact, I’m (approximately) the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Knowlton House on Parson Street in Congleton – it’s no longer a nursing home.

I wonder who assisted at my birth? It could well have been our family Dr Galbraith, or Nurses Frost and Botting.

Dr Galbraith (R) was our family doctor, who (with his partner Dr Ritchie) often attended births at Knowlton House, and is seen here with resident midwife Nurse Rose Hannah Frost, who assisted at more than 3000 births. There is a very good chance either Nurse Frost or Nurse May Botting (who ran the nursing home) assisted at my birth. In this photo from 1936, Dr Galbraith and Nurse Frost are holding the Nixon triplets. Photo courtesy of Alan Nixon, who was apparently named after Dr Galbraith.

My dad registered my birth¹ on 22 November (Entry No. 442). There are few ‘Michaels’ in the family; Thomas is my paternal grandfather’s name.

My eldest brother Martin was born in September 1939, just a couple of days before war was declared on Germany. My sister Margaret was born in January 1941. Martin and Margaret spent much of WWII with my paternal grandparents in rural Derbyshire. My elder brother Edgar (‘Ed’) is, like me, one of the baby boomer generation, born in July 1946.

The difference of around 55 years – 1951/52 and 2006

I’ve often wondered what sacrifices Mum and Dad had to make to give us all such a good start in life.

Growing up in Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street, close to the town center’s High Street.

There’s not much to tell about my first couple of years, other than what I can surmise from a few photographs taken around that time when I was still in my pram or just beginning to walk. Two things I do remember clearly, though. The hens my father used to keep, and even the large henhouse he constructed at the bottom of the garden. And our female cat, Mitten, and all her kittens. That must have been the start of becoming an ailurophile (cat lover).

My best friend was Alan Brennan, a year younger, who lived a little further up Moody Street at No. 23 (and with whom I reconnected through this blog, after a gap of around 60 years!).

With Alan and his parents (and friends) at Timbersbrook, in 1955. I clearly remember Mr Brennan’s Vauxhall car – a Wyvern I believe.

We didn’t go to the same primary school. Like my brothers and sister before me, I was enrolled (in September 1952 or April 1953, maybe as late as September 1953) at the small Church of England school on Leek Road in Mossley, south of the town. By then, Martin had moved on to grammar school in Macclesfield; Margaret had also transferred to secondary school in Congleton.

Each morning, Ed and I would catch the bus in the High Street together for the short, 1½ mile ride to Mossley. And even as young as five, I would sometimes walk home alone from school during the summer months, along Leek Road and Canal Road/Street. How times change!

I remember the headteacher, Mr Morris, as a kind person. My class teachers were Mrs Bickerton (on the left) and Mrs Johnson (on the right). Courtesy of Liz Campion.

There was a real community of children around Moody Street, Howie Lane/Hill, and Priesty Fields. In summer, we’d all wander up to play on the swing bridge over the Macclesfield Canal (beyond the cemetery – where we would also play in a WWII air raid shelter). The bridge has long been replaced, but from comments on a Congleton Facebook group I belong to, it seems that over the generations, many children enjoyed the swing bridge as much as we did.

In winter, we had fun in the snow at Priesty Fields just round the corner from Moody St. And, as you can see below, we enjoyed dressing up. Happy days!

In the upper image, taken on Coronation Day in 1953, I’m fifth from the right (carrying the stick). Alan Brennan is the little by to the left of the ‘clown’, and in front of the ‘pirate’, my elder brother Ed. The lower image was taken on May Day, probably 1953 or 54. I’m on the left, carrying the sword, uncertain whether to be a knight or a cowboy.

c. 1955. L-R: Veronica George, Carol Brennan, Jessica George, my elder brother Ed, me, Margaret Moulton, and Alan Brennan. Taken in the garden of No 13 Moody St. The George sisters lived at No. 21 Moody St.

I often joined my father when he went out on photographic assignments for the Congleton Chronicle (where he was Chief Photographer), often to Biddulph Grange when it was an orthopedic hospital, also to Astbury, and out into the beautiful Cheshire countryside.

I remember one outing in particular, to Little Moreton Hall in May 1954. This is my father’s photo of Manley Morris Men dancing there, an image that stuck in my mind for many years. So much so that when I went to university in the later 1960s, I helped form a morris dancing side, the Red Stags, that’s still going strong (albeit in a slightly different form) 50 years later.

The Manley Morris Men at Little Moreton Hall on 8 May 1954.

For family holidays I remember those in North Wales, at a caravan park or, on one occasion, a camping coach, a converted railway carriage alongside the mainline to Holyhead next to the beach at Abergele.

During these early years, until July 1954, rationing was still in place that had come into effect at the start of the Second World War. I often wonder how my parents managed to raise four children during these difficult years. One thing I do recall, however, is how we shared things, particularly confectionery. No individual treats. My father would buy a Mars bar (I’m sure they were bigger then) and cut it into six pieces. Funny how these things stick in one’s memory.


The move to Leek
April 1956. A big change in my life. My family upped sticks and moved 12 miles southeast to the market town of Leek in north Staffordshire, where my father took over a retail photography business. As I was only 7½ when we moved, I’ve come to regard Leek as my home town. My parents lived there for the rest of their lives. My father passed away in 1980, and after my mother had a stroke in 1990, only then did she move away from Leek to spend her last couple of years in a care home near my sister in South Wales.

We lived at No. 65, St Edward Street, and within a couple of days of arriving there, I’d made friends with three boys who lived close by: Philip Porter (next door), Geoff Sharratt – whose father was publican at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away, and David Phillips who lived over the road. Geoff’s younger sister Susan sometimes joined in our games, as did Philip’s sister Jill. We were the ‘St Edward Street Gang’.

Here we are in the late 1950s (probably 1958), in the yard of The Quiet Woman pub. L-R: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip, and Dave. And again in 2018.

Geoff was my best friend, and we spent a lot of time playing together. There were several upstairs rooms at The Quiet Woman, one of which was the Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB, the Buffs, a fraternal organization somewhat similar to the Freemasons). During inclement weather, we often took refuge in the Lodge, playing among the benches and high chairs.

Playing with my Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train at ‘Congleton’ station – it would be a collectors’ item today. Taken around 1958.

I was also a cub scout, as was Ed.

Around 1960, the lease on No. 65 came due, so my father decided to to find a better location for his business. First, he moved across St Edward’s St to No. 56 (while we lived in a flat at the top of the Market Place). In 1962/63 my father acquired No. 19 Market Place as premises for his photographic business, with living accommodation above. This was just what he had been looking for, centrally located in the town, lots of footfall. But the whole property had to be refurbished; there was only one water tap – in the cellar. He did much of the refurbishment himself. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at his DIY talents, something I sadly have not inherited to the same degree. My parents remained at No. 19 until they retired in 1976.

Sandwiched between Jackson the Optician (no relation) on the left, and Victoria Wine on the right, No 19 Market Place was my parents home for 14 years.

Around the same time, Geoff’s parents left The Quiet Woman and moved elsewhere in the town. I was also traveling every day to school to Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent (a round trip of about 28 miles), while Geoff continued his education in Leek. As a consequence, we drifted apart, but through my blog we reconnected in 2012.

Mr Smith

My mother’s family were Irish Catholics, and although we had not been brought up in the faith while in Congleton, both Ed and myself were enrolled in St. Mary’s RC primary school on Cruso Street, a short walk away from home. We were taught by Sisters of Loreto nuns. Headmistress Mother Elizabeth or my class teacher, Mother Bernadine, were never averse to wrapping us across the knuckles with the sharp edge of a ruler. In my final year at St Mary’s (1959-60), we were taught by Mr Smith. But my recollections don’t tally so much with many others who also attended St Mary’s. And I have been horrified at some accounts of how unhappy they were at the school in the 1950s and 60s.

In the late 50s and early 60s, just Ed and I would join our parents for holidays in Wales, most often camping or in our own caravan.

Some of my happiest memories though come from our visits to my grandparents² (my father’s parents) in Hollington, a small Derbyshire village between Ashbourne and Derby. My grandfather was almost 76 when I was born; Grandma was 68.

Family picnic at Hollington, c. 1952, with cousins. Grandma in the center, my mum is on the left. I’m center front ‘guarding’ the bottle.

With Grandad and Grandma Jackson, and our cousin Diana, c. 1959 at Ebenezer Cottage.

Grandma and Grandad celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1954, the occasion of a large gathering of family and friends in Hollington.


Enduring high school
I passed my 11 Plus exam to attend a Roman Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, at Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent. Founded by Irish Christian Brothers in 1932, the school took boys only (but is now co-educational). I had to be on the bus by 07:50 each morning if I was to get to school by 09:00. This was my daily routine for the next seven years.

On reflection, I can’t say that I found the school experience satisfying or that the quality of the education I received was worth writing home about. Yes, there were some good teachers who I looked up to, but much of the teaching was pretty mediocre. I’ve written elsewhere about the gratuitous use of corporal punishment at the school.

Perhaps one of the school’s claims to fame was the priest who attended to our ‘spiritual needs’. He was Father John Tolkien, son JRR Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. My first impressions of Fr Tolkien were not favorable. He came across as cold and authoritarian. When I got to know him later on, however, I found he was a warm person with a good sense of humor. I was saddened to learn that his last years were blighted by accusations of abuse, later dropped.


On to university . . . and faraway places
I was lucky to secure a place in October 1967 at the University of Southampton to study botany and geography, beginning three of the happiest years of my life. I’ve already blogged about various aspects of my time at Southampton, and you can read them here. Little did I think that I would have a career in botany, and that would lead me to fulfill one of my ambitions: to visit Peru.

Even though I graduated in 1970 with only an average BSc degree, that didn’t hold me back. I had ambitions.

I was fortunate to be accepted into graduate school at the University of Birmingham, where I completed MSc and PhD degrees in plant genetic resources, and returned there in 1981 for a decade as Lecturer in Plant Biology.

After my PhD graduation at The University of Birmingham on 12 December 1975 with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes (L) and Prof. Trevor Williams (R) who supervised my MSc dissertation.

My international career in plant genetic resources conservation and agriculture took me to Peru and Costa Rica from 1973-1981, to work on potatoes for the International Potato Center (CIP). And then in July 1991, I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for the next 19 years as head of the genebank then as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

I had good opportunities to publish my research over the years, in terms of journal articles, books and book chapters, and presentations at scientific conferences.

I retired in April 2010, at the age of 61. But I haven’t rested on my laurels. Scientifically I have:

In the 2012 I was honored to be made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science (in the New Year’s Honours).

I set up this blog in February 2012, and have written more than 460 stories for a total of around 470,000 words since then, and posted thousands of images, most of which I have taken myself.


Family
Steph and I were married on 13 October 1973 in Lima, Peru. We’d met at Birmingham during 1971-72, and after I’d moved to Lima in January 1973, she joined me there in July and also worked at CIP.

At La Granja Azul restaurant near Lima (on the left) after our wedding in 1973. And on the right, exactly 45 years later during one of our walks at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Hannah, our elder daughter was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982, a year after we had moved back to the UK (in March 1981). When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, they both attended the International School Manila, and then went on to university in the USA (Macalester College in Minnesota) and Durham in the UK, respectively. In 2006 and 2010, they completed their PhD degrees in psychology, respectively at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

PhD graduands! On the left, Hannah is with her classmates in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Emily and Mike, on 12 May 2006. Philippa (on the right) is with one of her PhD supervisors, Prof. David Kennedy of the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the Dept. of Psychology at Northumbria University on 7 December 2010.

In those same years Hannah married Michael, and Phil married Andi. We now have four wonderful grandchildren: Callum (8), Elvis (7), Zoë (6), and Felix (5). The family came together for the first time in a New Forest holiday in July 2016.

On holiday in the New Forest in July 2016. L-R (sitting): Callum, Hannah, Zoë, me, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael and Andi

The 2018-19 school year started for Callum and Zoë in August, and for Elvis and Felix in September. It was also Felix’s first day at school.

In September, Steph and I spent a week in Cornwall exploring many National Trust and English Heritage properties around the county.

Foldes and Fenner family photos in July and September


So, as I look back on the past 70 years, I can’t say I have much to complain about. Steph and I have a beautiful family. An interesting career took me to more than 65 countries (and Steph to some of those). We’ve lived and worked in three countries and made some wonderful friends.

Je ne regrette rien

At 70, though, what does life have in store?

I think Fleetwood Mac (one of my favorite bands) sum it up quite nicely. If it was fine for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me.

Retirement is sweet. Who could ask for more?


¹ I no longer have my original birth certificate. That now sits in an archive somewhere in the Miraflores Municipality building in Lima, Peru. When Steph and I married there in October 1973 we had to present our original birth certificates, not realizing these would be filed away in perpetuity and never returned to us.

² I did not really know my mother’s parents, who died before my sixth birthday. They lived in Epsom, Surrey.

Gelia Castillo – a synthesis tour de force

I was searching YouTube the other day for videos about the recent 5th International Rice Congress held in Singapore, when I came across several on the IRRI channel about a long-time friend and former colleague, Professor Gelia Castillo, who passed away in August 2017 at the age of 89¹.

Gelia was a distinguished rural sociologist, emeritus professor at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) and, since 1999, a National Scientist of the Philippines, the highest honor that can be bestowed on any scientist.

I’m proud to have counted her among my friends.

I’d known Gelia since the late 1970s when she joined the Board of Trustees of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, the first woman board member and, if memory serves me correctly, one of the first women to serve on any board among the CGIAR centers when they were dominated by white Caucasian males (a situation that no longer obtains, thankfully).

The CGIAR centers in 2018 (from CIAT Annual Report 2017-2018).

I know that Gelia went to serve on the board of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (now Bioversity International) based in Rome, and other boards inside and outside the CGIAR.

I was a young scientist, in my late 20s, working for CIP in Costa Rica (and throughout Central America) when Gelia joined the center’s board, bringing (as she did everywhere she went) a welcome breath of fresh air—and a clarity of independent thinking—that categorized all her intellectual contributions. She influenced policymakers in government, international development circles, and academe, [and] pioneered the concept of participatory development.

Gelia was born into a poor family in Pagsanjan in Laguna Province, just 31 km east of Los Baños, the city² where she spent her entire academic career. She completed her graduate studies in the United States with MS (1953) and PhD (1960) degrees in rural sociology from Penn State and Cornell, respectively. She retired from UPLB in 1993, a couple of years after I landed in the Philippines, when we renewed our friendship after more than a decade.

But retirement did not mean slowing down. Besides her international board commitments, Gelia became ‘synthesizer-in-chief’ at IRRI, an honorary role through which she attended institute seminars and science reviews. She was also a valued adviser to successive Directors General. Let Gelia herself explain.

Gelia kept us honest! Why do I say this? She had an uncanny ability always to see the broader picture and bring together quite different perspectives to bear on the topic in hand. She herself admitted that, early in her career, she decided to concentrate on ‘synthesis’, an academic and intellectual focus and a skill (gift almost) that few manage to harness successfully. It wasn’t just her social sciences training.

In developing a research strategy and plan, any organization like IRRI needs skilled and dedicated researchers. But often, because each is deeply involved in his or her own projects, they find it hard to see (often necessary) links with other disciplines and research outcomes. Gelia was able to extract the essence of the institute’s research achievements and pull it together, mostly with approval but sometimes with justified criticism. Given her expertise in participatory research, working with poor families in rural areas (the ‘clients, as it were, of IRRI’s research and products), and promoting gender studies, Gelia could, almost at the drop of a hat, deliver a succinct synthesis of everything she had listened to, and provide suggestions for future directions. After a week of intense annual science review presentations and discussions, Gelia would be called upon, at the end of the final afternoon, to deliver her synthesis. Here she is, at the IRRI science review in 2010.

And almost without fail, she could hit the mark; and while she could be critical, never were criticisms aimed at individuals. Her analysis never became personal. I’m sure her wise words are sorely missed at IRRI.

Permit me to finish with a personal recollection. I retired from IRRI in April 2010 and, in subsequent years, I only saw her a couple of times, later that same year and in August 2014, when I was organizing the 3rd and 4th International Rice Congresses, and had to visit IRRI in that capacity.

Sharing cake and reminiscences with Gelia (in the DPPC office) on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010.

But just before I retired, in March 2010, I delivered my ‘exit’ seminar: Potatoes, pulses and rice – a 40 year adventure, a synthesis of my career in international agricultural research and academia. It must have struck a chord with Gelia. Because after it was all over, she came up to me, took me by the hand, and planted a large kiss on my cheek. That was praise indeed! A memory I cherish.


¹ Written by my friend and former colleague, Gene Hettel (who had been Head of IRRI’s Communication & Publication Services), IRRI published this obituary shortly after her death. There you will also find links to the speeches at her memorial service.

² In 2000, under Presidential Proclamation Order No. 349, the Municipality of Los Baños was designated and declared a Special Science and Nature City of the Philippines.

In perpetuity . . . or longer (updated 17 October 2018)

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news¹ about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October², during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

The collection holds more than 130,000 seed samples or accessions of landrace varieties, wild species, and other research materials, among others. You can check the status of the IRRI collection (and many more genebanks in the Genesys database).

My congratulations to Genebank Head and compatriot, Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton and his key genebank lieutenants, Genebank Manager Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Sr Associate Scientist Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, for guiding the genebank to this happy state.

It has been a long journey, almost 60 years, from 1960 when IRRI was founded and Dr TT Chang (the first head of the genebank) began to assemble a collection of rice varieties that soon became the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC).

L-R: Dr TT Chang was head of the International Rice Germplasm Center from 1962-1990; Mike Jackson served as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (here with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug) from 1991-2001; and Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton joined IRRI in 2002.

There was a significant change of direction, so to speak, to the genebank and its operations in 1991 after my appointment as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (the IRGC acronym was subsequently changed to International Rice Genebank Collection) with a mandate to rationalize and upgrade the genebank’s operations. I held that position for the next decade before moving on to the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications in 2001. Ruaraidh joined IRRI in 2002 and has been at the helm ever since.

In other stories posted on this blog I have described what it entails to run a genebank for rice, and some of the important changes we made to modernize genebank management and operations, especially how they were impacted with respect to the institute’s international obligations to FAO and subsequently under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2015 I made my own video to illustrate many of the different operations of the genebank, some of which have been modified in the light of new research concerning the handling of rice seeds post-harvest. Nevertheless, the video reflects the changes I introduced during my tenure as head of the International Rice Genebank, many of which still prevail.

Ruaraidh built upon the changes I introduced, bar-coding all samples for example, and linking the collection with others in the CGIAR through the Genebank Platform. There have been further improvements to how data about the collection are managed, and seed management was enhanced through the research of former employee and seed physiologist Dr Fiona Hay and her PhD student Kath (now Dr) Whitehouse.

Ruaraidh has also successfully steered IRRI and its genetic resources through the turbulent currents of international germplasm politics that culminated in the entering into force of the International Treaty in June 2004, and the subsequent negotiations over access and benefit sharing. I can’t deny I was quite happy to leave these ‘political’ aspects behind when I left GRC in 2001. Management and use of genetic resources in the 1990s were increasingly affected by the various negotiations that affected access to and sharing of biodiversity after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in December 1993. To some extent they were a distraction (but an important one) from the technical aspects of rice genetic resources that I tackling.

It’s quite humbling that for generations to come, I will have been a part of securing the genetic heritage of rice. Besides making the necessary technical changes to genebank structure and operations in the 1990s, I’m particularly proud of the personnel structures I introduced. These permitted staff to really fulfill their potential.

I quickly recognized that Pola should be placed in the role of Genebank Manger, and Ato given responsibility for all field operations. We built a team that believed in a culture of mutual support.

Ken McNally

Another aspect was the recognition, way back in 1998, of the power of genomics and molecular genetics to unravel the secrets of rice diversity. To that end I had organized an international workshop in The Hague in September 1999, which is described about two-thirds through this blog post. I was fortunate to hire Dr Ken McNally as a molecular geneticist in this respect, and he has taken the study of rice genetic diversity to another level, supported by someone who I believed in from my early days at IRRI, Dr Elizabeth Naredo.

But the genebank is also facing some changes. Ruaraidh is expected to retire in the near future, and Pola and Ato can’t be far off retirement. No-one is irreplaceable, but they will be a hard act to follow. Finding individuals with the same breadth of experience, commitment to genetic resources conservation, and work ethic will certainly be a challenge. Other staff from my era have already retired; the genebank did not fall apart. With this secure funding from the Crop Trust the genebank can, for the first time in its 60 year history, set itself on a trajectory into the future in a way that was always uncertain in the past (because of year-to-year funding), but always the Holy Grail of genetic resources conservation.

I also hope that IRRI will step up to the plate and secure other funds to build a completely new genebank appropriate for the 21st century. After all, the facilities I ‘inherited’ from TT Chang are approaching 40-50 years, and even those I improved are 25 years old. Relieving the institute of the genebank annual operating budget should open up other opportunities.

Congratulations to IRRI, and on behalf of the genetic resources community (especially those depending on rice) a big thank you to the Crop Trust!


¹ BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

² My friend and former IRRI colleague, Gene Hettel, kindly sent me some photos and videos from yesterday’s signing ceremony in Singapore between IRRI and the Crop Trust.

Crop Trust Executive Director Marie Haga and IRRI Director General Matthew Morell sign the agreement assuring in perpetuity funding for the International Rice Genebank.

Head of the genebank Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton speaking after the signing of the agreement. On the left is Charlotte Lusty, Head of Programs and Genebank Platform Coordinator at the Crop Trust.

One very nice touch during the ceremony was the recognition of Pola de Guzman’s 40 years dedicated service to genetic conservation at IRRI.

Well done, Pola!

 

 

Crystal balls, accountability and risk: planning and managing agricultural research for development (R4D)

A few days ago, I wrote a piece about perceived or real threats to the UK’s development aid budget. I am very concerned that among politicians and the wider general public there is actually little understanding about the aims of international development aid, how it’s spent, what it has achieved, and even how it’s accounted for.

Throughout my career, I worked for organizations and programs that were supported from international development aid budgets. Even during the decade I was a faculty member at The University of Birmingham during the 1980s, I managed a research project on potatoes (a collaboration with the International Potato Center, or CIP, in Peru where I had been employed during the 1970s) funded by the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA), the forerunner of today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

I actually spent 27 years working overseas for two international agricultural research centers in South and Central America, and in the Philippines, from 1973-1981 and from 1991-2010. These were CIP as I just mentioned, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a globally-important research center in Los Baños, south of Manila in the Philippines, working throughout Asia where rice is the staple food crop, and collaborating with the Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) in Africa, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Latin America.

All four centers are members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) that was established in 1971 to support investments in research and technology development geared toward increasing food production in the food-deficit countries of the world.

Dr Norman Borlaug

The CGIAR developed from earlier initiatives, going back to the early 1940s when the Rockefeller Foundation supported a program in Mexico prominent for the work of Norman Borlaug (who would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970).

By 1960, Rockefeller was interested in expanding the possibilities of agricultural research and, joining with the Ford Foundation, established IRRI to work on rice in the Philippines, the first of what would become the CGIAR centers. In 2009/2010 IRRI celebrated its 50th anniversary. Then, in 1966, came the maize and wheat center in Mexico, CIMMYT—a logical development from the Mexico-Rockefeller program. CIMMYT was followed by two tropical agriculture centers, IITA in Nigeria and CIAT in Colombia, in 1967. Today, the CGIAR supports a network of 15 research centers around the world.

Peru (CIP); Colombia (CIAT); Mexico (CIMMYT); USA (IFPRI); Ivory Coast (Africa Rice); Nigeria (IITA); Kenya (ICRAF and ILRI); Lebanon (ICARDA); Italy (Bioversity International); India (ICRISAT); Sri Lanka (IWMI); Malaysia (Worldfish); Indonesia (CIFOR); and Philippines (IRRI)

The origins of the CGIAR and its evolution since 1971 are really quite interesting, involving the World Bank as the prime mover.

In 1969, World Bank President Robert McNamara (who had been US Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) wrote to the heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) in New York saying: I am writing to propose that the FAO, the UNDP and the World Bank jointly undertake to organize a long-term program of support for regional agricultural research institutes. I have in mind support not only for some of the existing institutes, including the four now being supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations [IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, and CIAT], but also, as occasion permits, for a number of new ones.

Just click on this image to the left to open an interesting history of the CGIAR, published a few years ago when it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

I joined CIP in January 1973 as an Associate Taxonomist, not longer after it became a member of the CGIAR. In fact, my joining CIP had been delayed by more than a year (from September 1971) because the ODA was still evaluating whether to provide funds to CIP bilaterally or join the multilateral CGIAR system (which eventually happened). During 1973 or early 1974 I had the opportunity of meeting McNamara during his visit to CIP, something that had quite an impression on a 24 or 25 year old me.

In the first couple of decades the primary focus of the CGIAR was on enhancing the productivity of food crops through plant breeding and the use of genetic diversity held in the large and important genebanks of eleven centers. Towards the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, the CGIAR centers took on a research role in natural resources management, an approach that has arguably had less success than crop productivity (because of the complexity of managing soil and water systems, ecosystems and the like).

In research approaches pioneered by CIP, a close link between the natural and social sciences has often been a feature of CGIAR research programs. It’s not uncommon to find plant breeders or agronomists, for example working alongside agricultural economists or anthropologists and sociologists, who provide the social context for the research for development that is at the heart of what the CGIAR does.

And it’s this research for development—rather than research for its own sake (as you might find in any university department)—that sets CGIAR research apart. I like to visualize it in this way. A problem area is identified that affects the livelihoods of farmers and those who depend on agriculture for their well-being. Solutions are sought through appropriate research, leading (hopefully) to positive outcomes and impacts. And impacts from research investment are what the donor community expects.

Of course, by its very nature, not all research leads to positive outcomes. If we knew the answers beforehand there would be no need to undertake any research at all. Unlike scientists who pursue knowledge for its own sake (as with many based in universities who develop expertise in specific disciplines), CGIAR scientists are expected to contribute their expertise and experience to research agendas developed by others. Some of this research can be quite basic, as with the study of crop genetics and genomes, for example, but always with a focus on how such knowledge can be used to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers. Much research is applied. But wherever the research sits on the basic to applied continuum, it must be of high quality and stand up to scrutiny by the scientific community through peer-publication. In another blog post, I described the importance of good science at IRRI, for example, aimed at the crop that feeds half the world’s population in a daily basis.

Since 1972 (up to 2016 which was the latest audited financial statement) the CGIAR and its centers have received USD 15.4 billion. To some, that might seem an enormous sum dedicated to agricultural research, even though it was received over a 45 year period. As I pointed out earlier with regard to rice, the CGIAR centers focus on the crops and farming systems (in the broadest sense) in some of the poorest countries of the world, and most of the world’s population.

But has that investment achieved anything? Well, there are several ways of measuring impact, the economic return to investment being one. Just look at these impressive figures from CIAT in Colombia that undertakes research on beans, cassava, tropical forages (for pasture improvement), and rice.

For even more analysis of the impact of CGIAR research take a look at the 2010 Food Policy paper by agricultural economists and Renkow and Byerlee.

Over the years, however, the funding environment has become tighter, and donors to the CGIAR have demanded greater accountability. Nevertheless, in 2018 the CGIAR has an annual research portfolio of just over US$900 million with 11,000 staff working in more than 70 countries around the world. CGIAR provides a participatory mechanism for national governments, multilateral funding and development agencies and leading private foundations to finance some of the world’s most innovative agricultural research.

The donors are not a homogeneous group however. They obviously differ in the amounts they are prepared to commit to research for development. They focus on different priority regions and countries, or have interests in different areas of science. Some donors like to be closely involved in the research, attending annual progress meetings or setting up their own monitoring or reviews. Others are much more hands-off.

When I joined the CGIAR in 1973, unrestricted funds were given to centers, we developed our annual work programs and budget, and got on with the work. Moving to Costa Rica in 1976 to lead CIP’s regional program in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, I had an annual budget and was expected to send a quarterly report back to HQ in Lima. Everything was done using snail mail or telex. No email demands to attend to on almost a daily basis.

Much of the research carried out in the centers is now funded from bilateral grants from a range of donors. Just look at the number and complexity of grants that IRRI manages (see Exhibit 2 – page 41 and following – from the 2016 audited financial statement). Each of these represents the development of a grant proposal submitted for funding, with its own objectives, impact pathway, expected outputs and outcomes. These then have to be mapped to the CGIAR cross-center programs (in the past these were the individual center Medium Term Plans), in terms of relevance, staff time and resources.

What it also means is that staff spend a considerable amount of time writing reports for the donors: quarterly, biannually, or annually. Not all have the same format, and it’s quite a challenge I have to say, to keep on top of that research complexity. In the early 2000s the donors also demanded increased attention to the management of risk, and I have written about that elsewhere in this blog.

And that’s how I got into research management in 2001, when IRRI Director General Ron Cantrell invited me to join the senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Coordination (later Communications).

For various reasons, the institute did not have a good handle on current research grants, nor their value and commitments. There just wasn’t a central database of these grants. Such was the situation that several donors were threatening to withhold future grants if the institute didn’t get its act together, and begin accounting more reliably for the funding received, and complying with the terms and conditions of each grant.

Within a week I’d identified most (but certainly not all) active research grants, even those that had been completed but not necessarily reported back to the donors. It was also necessary to reconcile information about the grants with that held by the finance office who managed the financial side of each grant. Although I met resistance for several months from finance office staff, I eventually prevailed and had them accept a system of grant identification using a unique number. I was amazed that they were unable to understand from the outset how and why a unique identifier for each grant was not only desirable but an absolute necessity. I found that my experience in managing the world’s largest genebank for rice with over 100,000 samples or accessions stood me in good stead in this respect. Genebank accessions have a range of information types that facilitate their management and conservation and use. I just treated research grants like genebank accessions, and built our information systems around that concept.

Eric Clutario

I was expressly fortunate to recruit a very talented database manager, Eric Clutario, who very quickly grasped the concepts behind what I was truing to achieve, and built an important online information management system that became the ‘envy’ of many of the other centers.

We quickly restored IRRI’s trust with the donors, and the whole process of developing grant proposals and accounting for the research by regular reporting became the norm at IRRI. By the time IRRI received its first grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (for work on submergence tolerant rice) all the project management systems had been in place for several years and we coped pretty well with a complex and detailed grant proposal.

Since I retired from IRRI in 2010, and after several years of ‘reform’ the structure and funding of the CGIAR has changed somewhat. Centers no longer prepare their own Medium Term Plans. Instead, they commit to CGIAR Research Programs and Platforms. Some donors still provide support with few restrictions on how and where it can be spent. Most funding is bilateral support however, and with that comes the plethora of reporting—and accountability—that I have described.

Managing a research agenda in one of the CGIAR centers is much more complex than in a university (where each faculty member ‘does their own thing’). Short-term bilateral funding (mostly three years) on fairly narrow topics are now the components of much broader research strategies and programs. Just click on the image on the right to read all about the research organization and focus of the ‘new’ CGIAR. R4D is very important. It has provided solutions to many important challenges facing farmers and resource poor people in the developing world. Overseas development aid has achieved considerable traction through agricultural research and needs carefully protecting.