Research impact is all around – or at least it should be.

I believe it was IRRI’s former head of plant pathology Dr Tom (Twng-Wah) Mew who first coined this aphorism to describe IRRI’s philosophical approach to research (and I paraphrase):

It’s not only necessary to do the right science,
but to do the science right.

I couldn’t agree more, and have blogged elsewhere about the relevance of IRRI’s science. But this is science or research for development (or R4D as it’s often abbreviated) and best explained, perhaps by the institute’s tagline or slogan:

Rice Science copy

This is not science in a vacuum, in an ivory tower seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This is research to solve real problems: to reduce poverty and increase food security. I don’t really like the distinction that’s often made between so-called pure or basic science, and applied science. Surely it’s a continuum? Let me give you just one example from my own research experience.

I have also blogged about the problem of bacterial wilt of potatoes. It can be a devastating disease, not only of potatoes and other solaneaceous crops like tomatoes and eggplants, but also of bananas. While the research I carried out was initially aimed at identifying better adapted potatoes resistant to bacterial wilt, very much an ‘applied’ perspective, we also had to investigate why the bacterium was surviving so long in the soil in the apparent absence of susceptible hosts. This epidemiological focus fed into better disease control approaches.

But in any case, the only distinction that perhaps really matters is whether the science is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Why is rice science so crucial? Because rice is the world’s most important staple food, feeding more than half of the global population on a daily basis, even several times a day in some Asian countries. IRRI’s science focuses on gains for rice farmers and those who eat rice, research that can potentially affect billions of people. It’s all about impact, at different levels. While not all impact is positive, however, it’s important to think through all the implications and direction of a particular line of research even before it starts. In other words ‘What does success look like?‘ and how will research outputs become positive outcomes?

Now I don’t claim to be an expert in impact assessment. That’s quite a specialized field, with its own methodologies. It wasn’t until I changed careers at IRRI in 2001 and became the Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) that I fully came to understand (or even appreciate) what ex ante and ex post impact meant in the context of R4D. I was fortunate as DPPC to call upon the expertise of my Australian colleague, Dr Debbie Templeton, now back in her home country with the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).


11222449_888009937912763_3115952232097675704_oRice Science for a Better World?

IRRI has a prestigious scientific reputation, and deservedly so. It strives hard to maintain that reputation.

IRRI scientists publish widely in international journals. IRRI’s publication rate is second-to-none. On occasion IRRI has been criticized, censured almost, for being ‘obsessed with science and scientific publication’. Extraordinary! What for heaven’s sake does ‘Research’ in the name ‘International Rice Research Institute’ stand for? Or for that matter, in the name ‘CGIAR’ or ‘Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’?

What our erstwhile colleagues fail to grasp, I believe, is that scientific publication is a consequence of doing good science, not an objective in itself. Having recruited some of the best scientists, IRRI provides an environment that brings out the best in its staff to contribute effectively to the institute’s common goals, while permitting them to grow professionally. Surely it must be the best of both worlds to have scientists contributing to a worthwhile and important research agenda, but knowing that their work is also esteemed by their scientific peers?

But what is the ‘right science’? Well, it depends of course.

IRRI is not an academic institution, where scientists are expected to independently pursue their own interests, and bring in large sums of research funding (along with the delicious overheads that administrators expect). All IRRI scientists contribute—as breeders, geneticists, pathologists, molecular biologists, economists, or whatever—to a common mission that:

. . . aims to reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure environmental sustainability of rice farming. We do these through collaborative research, partnerships, and the strengthening of the national agricultural research and extension systems, or NARES, of the countries we work in.

IRRI’s research agenda and policies are determined by a board of trustees, guided by input from its partners, donors, end users such as farmers, and its staff. IRRI aims to meet five goals, aligned with the objectives of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), that coordinates rice research among more than 900 international partners, to:

  • Reduce poverty through improved and diversified rice-based systems.
  • Ensure that rice production is stable and sustainable, does minimal harm to the environment, and can cope with climate change.
  • Improve the nutrition and health of poor rice consumers and farmers.
  • Provide equitable access to information and knowledge on rice and help develop the next generation of rice scientists.
  • Provide scientists and producers with the genetic information and material they need to develop improved technologies and enhance rice production.

Rice Science for a Better World, indeed.

International agricultural research like IRRI’s is funded from the public purse, in the main, though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major player supporting agricultural research over the past decade. Tax dollars, Euros, British pounds, Swiss francs, or Japanese yen are donated—invested even—through overseas development assistance budgets like USAID in the USA, the European Commission, DfID in the UK, SDC in Switzerland, and several institutions in Japan, to name just a handful of those donor agencies committed to finding solutions to real problems through research. Donors want to see how their funds are being used, and the positive benefits that their investments have contributed to. Unfortunately donors rarely share the same vision of ‘success’.

One of the challenges that faces a number of research organizations however, is that their research mandates fall short of effectively turning research outputs into research outcomes or impact. But having an idea of ‘what success looks like’ researchers can be in a better position to know who to partner with to ensure that research outputs become outcomes, be they national scientists, civil society organizations, NGOs, and the like.

As I said, when I became DPPC at IRRI, my office managed the process of developing and submitting research project funding proposals, as well as reporting back to donors what had been achieved. I had to get this message across to my research scientist colleagues: How will your proposed research project benefit farmers and rice consumers? This was not something they expected.

Quite early on in my DPPC tenure, I had a wake-up call after we had submitted a proposal to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), at their request I should add, to support some work on rice genomics. The science described in the proposal was first rate. After mulling over our proposal for a couple of months, I received a phone call from our contact at ADB in Manila who was handling the internal review of the proposal. He asked me to add a paragraph or two about how this work on rice genomics would benefit rice consumers otherwise ADB would not be able to consider this project in its next funding round.

So I went to discuss this apparent conundrum with the scientist involved, and explained what was required for ADB approval. ‘How will rice genomics benefit rice farmers and consumers?‘, I asked him. ‘I can’t describe that‘ he relied, somewhat woefully. ‘Well‘, I replied, ‘unless we can tell ADB how your project is going to benefit farmers etc, then your proposal is dead in the water‘.

After some thought, and based on my simplistic explanation of the impact pathway, he did come up with quite an elegant justification that we could submit to ADB. Despite our efforts, the project was not funded by ADB. The powers-that-be decided that the research was too far removed from the ultimate beneficiaries. But the process in itself was useful. It helped us to understand better how we should pitch our proposals and what essential elements to show we had thought things through.

Now the graphic below is obviously a simplistic representation of a complex set of issues. The figure on the left represents a farmer, a community, a situation that is constrained in some way or other, such as low yield, diseased crops, access to market, human health issues, and the like. The objective of the research must be clearly defined and described. No point tilting at the wrong windmills.

The solid black and dashed red line represents the impact pathway to a better situation, turning research outputs into outcomes. The green arrow represents the point on that impact pathway where the research mandate of an institute often ends—before the outcome is delivered and adopted. How to fill that gap?

Individual research projects produce outputs along the impact pathway, and outputs from one project can be the inputs into another.

Whatever the impact pathway, it’s necessary to describe what success looks like, an increase in production over a specified area, release and adoption of disease resistant varieties, incomes of X% of farmers in region Y increased by Z%, or whatever.

Impact pathway

Let me highlight two IRRI projects. One has already shown impact after a research journey of almost two decades. The other, perhaps on-going for the same time period, has yet to show impact. I’m referring to submergence tolerant or ‘scuba rice‘, and ‘Golden Rice’, respectively.

9203724733_3f71432126_zFor the development of scuba rice it was first necessary to identify and characterize genes conferring submergence tolerance—many years in the laboratory even before the first lines were tested in the field and the proof of concept realized. It didn’t take long for farmers to see the advantage of these new rice varieties. They voted with their feet! So, in a sense, the farmers themselves managed the dashed red line of the impact pathway. Scuba rice is now grown on more than 2.5 million hectares by 10 million farmers in India and Bangladesh on land that could not consistently support rice crops because of flooding.

golden-riceGolden Rice has the potential to eradicate the problem of Vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. As I mentioned earlier, rice is eaten by many people in Asia several times a day. It’s the perfect vehicle to enhance the Vitamin A intake. Varieties have been produced, the proof of concept completed, yet Golden Rice is not yet grown commercially anywhere in those countries that would benefit most. The dashed red line in my impact pathway diagram is the constraint. Golden Rice is a GMO, and the post-research and pre-release regulatory framework has not been surmounted. Pressure groups also have delayed the testing of Golden Rice lines, even destroying field experiments that would provide the very data they are so ‘afraid’ of. Thus its impact is more potential than real. Donors have been patient, but is there a limit to that patience?

Keeping donors on-side
What I also came to realize early on is that it’s so necessary to engage on a regular basis with donors, establish a good working relationship, visit them in their offices from time-to-time, sharing a drink or a meal. Mutual confidence builds, and I found that I could pick up the phone and talk through an issue, send an email and get a reply quickly, and even consulted by donors themselves as they developed their funding priorities. It’s all part of research management. Donors also like to have ‘good news stories’. Nowadays, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, blogging even, also keep them in the loop. After all donors have their own constituencies—the taxpayers—to keep informed and onside as well.

Achieving impact is not easy. But if you have identified the wrong target, then no amount of research will bring about the desired outcome, or less likely to do so. While impact is the name of the game, good communications is equally important. They go hand-in-hand.

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