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.

You CAN teach an old dog new tricks . . .

I like to think I’m an organized sort of person. And I’m always looking at ways of doing anything more efficiently. What I hate is having to do something twice. ‘Do it once and do it right’ has been my motto, and that’s an approach I endeavored – with some success, I should add – to instill in the various staff who have worked for me over the years.

I call it ‘the San Miguel effect’. Whatever is that, I hear you cry? San Miguel is the principal brand of beer brewed in the Philippines (it had cornered 95% of the market by 2008). And as I always told my staff, ‘If you do something right first time, it frees up time for even better things – like drinking San Mig!’

I remember once chatting with a friend – over a San Mig or three – and he said to me, ‘Well, since you trained as a taxonomist [that’s someone who deals with classification of plants and animals], I bet you have your CD collection all sorted alphabetically’. True! I like things to be in their right place and I get so frustrated when I’m not able to find something I know I’ve ‘put away’ safely. And on it goes.

Over the years, I’ve done my fair share of travelling, and I think I’m pretty good at packing a suitcase – I’ve had enough practice. But you’re never to old to learn. And this relates also to how you store your clothes at home – for which (until very recently) I was not the most organized person, I have to say. But all that has changed, thanks to a video that one of my Canadian cousins posted on Facebook.

I keep all my ironed shirts on hangers in my wardrobe. T-shirts and underwear were just piled up in drawers. Not any longer. Having watched this video I’ve almost become obsessed with making sure all my clothes are carefully folded aw away. This technique also works on long sleeve shirts and pullovers, subject to a few folds I’ve added.

Now my clothes are neatly folded away, easy to locate, and my wife is happy.

And having sorted this problem out, I went looking for more tips online. This is a great one for folding and packing a suit and dress shirt.

Well, it doesn’t stop there. Ever got yourself in a twist with a fitted bedsheet? Not any more. Watch this.

Some folding techniques – like that for the suit – are intuitive. How ever did someone work out the 2 second shirt fold, or the fitted sheet?

Now it’s also time for me to get a life!

They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace . . .

A letter in the mail – The Queen’s New Year’s Honours
On a bright, sunny day last November (my birthday, actually) I was outside cleaning the car, when the postman passed by. He handed me several envelopes and my immediate reaction was that this was another load of the usual junk mail. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across one that seemed rather official looking. And I was even more surprised when I read what it had to say – that I had been nominated to become an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science. Well, I was gob-smacked, quite emotional really. I rushed inside to tell Steph – who was equally stunned, and we set to ponder how on earth this had come about. I did some Google detective work, and was able to find out a little more about the nomination process, and how successful nominees are chosen. But beyond that, I had no idea. Subsequently (in early January 2012), there was a press release from the British Embassy in the Philippines. There is some more information about the British honours system on the BBC website.

And then began six weeks of purgatory – nominees are sworn to secrecy until the honours list is published officially in The London Gazette, scheduled for 31 December! Anyway, on the 31st I came down for breakfast, and went to the website to see my name in print. And I couldn’t find it! I began to wonder if I had ticked the right box when I sent the form back. But then I found it (page N24) – under the Diplomatic Service and Overseas list. It was then that I discovered that my good friend and former colleague at IRRI, John Sheehy, had also been made an OBE. A great day for IRRI.

Going to the Palace – next steps
Not long after the New Year, I received a package of information from the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, with the date of the investiture: 29 February. I applied for tickets – for Steph, daughter Philippa, and my closest colleague in the DPPC at IRRI, Corinta Guerta.

Not long afterwards, the tickets arrived in the mail.

Corinta arrived to the UK on 26 February, and after her meeting at DfID in London on the Monday morning, came up to Bromsgrove to spend a couple of nights with us, and to join us for the investiture. We agreed to meet Philippa in London.

One other issue for me was what to wear: morning dress (top hat and tails) or lounge suit (and even which tie to choose).* I finally settled on my lounge suit and pink tie.

Investiture day
It was an early start on the 29th: up at 5 am, and off to Solihull to catch the 7:41 am Chiltern Railways service from Solihull (about 25 minutes from Bromsgrove by car) to London Marylebone. The train eventually was very crowded, with some passengers standing all the way from Banbury to London; but we had good seats. We met up with Philippa at Marylebone, had a quick cup of coffee, and then took a taxi to the Palace.

Security was extremely tight, and we had to show photo IDs and our tickets for access. It’s quite some feeling walking through the gates of the Palace (made in Bromsgrove), past the guards, and through into the inner quadrangle. At the main entrance, under a glass canopy, our tickets were again checked, and we headed inside. What a spectacle: guardsmen in their metal breastplates and equerries in morning suits; everyone was very polite and friendly. After a quick comfort stop, Steph, Philippa, and Corinta headed for the Ballroom, and I headed off in another direction to meet the other honours recipients. The recipients of knighthoods and CBEs were together in one room, the OBEs and MBEs in another. Mineral water and juices were provided – in bottles with The Queen’s crest, and little goblets with EIIR engraved (not to be left on a mantelpiece next to a priceless ceramic vase). We waited in a long gallery full of the most incredible pieces of art – goodness knows what their value was.

One of the Officers on Duty gave a briefing about the ceremony, that it would be held by HRH The Prince of Wales (not HM The Queen, much to my initial disappointment). It began precisely at 11 am, and the first batch of recipients was called away. I was in the second batch. Click on the image below to read the investiture program.

I guess I must have been called to receive my OBE at around 11:15; and afterwards the recipients returned to the back of the ballroom and took their seats to watch the rest of the proceedings. Immediately after the presentation, the insignia was removed and placed in a special case.

I was intrigued to see that the insignia was made by a company based in Bromsgrove, the Worcestershire Medal Service Ltd.

The medals are actually manufactured at a site in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, but the head office is a small shop on one of my daily walk routes!

Anyway, to get back to the ceremony. Each batch of recipients crossed the ballroom at the rear, to enter a corridor on the other side. And it was from there that each recipient was called forward, to wait beside one of the Officers on Duty, and then move forward again as the surname was announced (and the reason for the honour). Turning towards HRH, men gave a small bow from the neck and women a curtsy. The insignia was pinned on, and a few words exchanged.

Receiving my medal from HRH The Prince of Wales (screenshot from The British Monarch website)

HRH asked if I was still working in the Philippines – he had been well briefed, and then we spoke briefly about different varieties of rice. Then, after some words of thanks from HRH and a warm handshake that was it – my moment of glory all over, and I exited through a door on the opposite side from where I had entered. The ballroom itself was quite dimly lit, from several huge chandeliers. On the video footage I have seen, and on the close circuit TV that was broadcast to waiting recipients, the ballroom look very bright indeed.

Considering the number of honours recipients and that HRH spoke to each person individually, the investiture was over just after 12 noon. Then we were able to meet up with our guests. Steph, Philippa, and Corinta had found seats at the back of the ballroom. We then made our way outside for picture taking.

Here are just a few, but click on the image immediately below and a web album of the best photographs will open.

Unfortunately we were not able to stay long in London, since Corinta was due to fly back to the Philippines from Birmingham Airport (BHX) at 8:30 pm. So, once we had taken all the photographs we wanted, I hailed a taxi (much easier outside the Palace than I had envisaged) and we set off for Marylebone and the train. We had a quick bite to eat at the station, and our train to Solihull departed at 2:37 pm, arriving in Solihull on time just after 4 pm. Corinta had plenty of time to get changed, complete some last minute packing, and even enjoy a cup of tea and some home-made Victoria sponge before heading off to BHX in an Emirates Airlines limo.

Originally we thought about driving to London for the investiture. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would have been stupid to have attempted this trip by car, even though we could have parked right inside Buckingham Palace. On the afternoon of 29 February there were serious traffic incidents on one of the main motorways (M40) into London that we would have used, and there were holdups for several hours. So instead of an anticipated stressed journey by car, we let the train take the strain.

As Steph and I reflected on the day over dinner and a cup of tea that same evening, it was quite surreal to think we had been inside Buckingham Palace just a few hours before. But what a privilege it was, and what a fantastic honour to have received in recognition of the work I did in agricultural research, especially the conservation and use of crop genetic resources.

My former staff in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI sent me this photo – a very thoughtful touch.

Warrant of Appointment
On 22 May I received my Warrant of Appointment as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. This is printed on parchment, has an embossed Seal of the Order in the top left corner, and measures 11.5 x 16.5 inches approx.

* Over the past year since I first posted this story, lots of other recipients of awards have also worried about what to wear to an investiture, and their web searches have often led to my blog. I hope my advice has been useful. I know in at least one case that it has been, since there are a couple of comments to that effect.

DPPC . . . beginning and end

One morning in mid-January 2001, I received a phone call from then IRRI Director General, Ron Cantrell, asking me to drop by his office later that day. I had no idea what it was all about, so I was rather surprised to enter his office and find that the two Deputy Directors General, Ren Wang (Research) and Willy Padolina (Operations and Support Services) were also there.

Well, to cut a long story short, Ron asked me to give up my work as head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) and take up a new position as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC – originally Planning and Coordination). The rationale behind this was the somewhat dire funding situation of the institute then, and the almost complete lack of comprehensive information about the sources, amounts, and use of the research grants that IRRI had received. What Ron said to me was this: Mike, if a donor offered IRRI USD5 million tomorrow I wouldn’t want to refuse it, but there again I have no idea how it fits into the overall funding picture and commitments of the institute. We need someone to set up a new office whose role will be to bring some order and cohesion to this important set of activities. It appears that some visiting consultants had apparently whispered in Ron’s ear that I might be the sort of person to take on this role.

Well, I had to go away and think about this, and talk it over with Steph. Did I really want to move away from my work in rice genetic resources conservation? Well, for one reason or another, I turned him down – there were several of the terms of reference that I really couldn’t go along with. About six weeks later, one of my senior colleagues let me know that the DG was still interested in having me in the senior management team, so I decided to go and see Ron and discuss some of my concerns. We managed to reach a compromise, and on 1 May 2001 I moved from my office and labs in IRRI Brady Building (where the genebank is housed) to the main administration, FF Hill Building, across the campus.

While there had been an office taking care of donors and funding, I was decidedly unimpressed with what they had achieved, and saw little evidence from my first discussions with them that they would be likely to change. I had already agreed with Ron that I could make some staff changes. My GRC secretary, Zeny Federico, moved over to the DPPC office with me in May, and I began to replace and recruit new staff. One of my first objectives was to try to persuade a soil chemist, Corinta Guerta (whom I had never worked with but who had impressed me immensely when I was on a promotion panel to which she had applied in 1998) to give up her science and join me in a purely administrative role. It took me a couple of months or so, but Corinta joined me in August 2001.

Corints and I set about hiring new staff for the office. Of the original staff when I took over, only Marisol ‘Sol’ Camasin stayed on as the office clerk, until September 2002. Sol was replaced by Analyn Jopia until early 2004, when Vel Hernandez joined the office on a half-time basis (shared with the DDG-Research office). Vel became full time with DPPC in April 2007. In September 2001 we hired Monina La’O as an assistant manager to help develop the donor database. She left in December 2002 to get married and moved away from Los Baños, and was replaced by Sol Ogatis.

Building on Monina’s work, Sol expanded the donor database enormously, and working with Eric Clutario, a database developer, who we hired in October 2001, helped to develop in-house what became the most comprehensive project and donor management system among the CGIAR centers. Sol also left in September 2008 to work for the US Embassy in Manila (I used to tease her that she was going to work for the CIA), and then Marileth ‘Yeyet’ Enriquez joined DPPC in December 2008, and took the project management system from strength-to-strength.

By the time I retired in 2010, there were four full-time staff in the office: Corinta, who as senior manager had been my 2-I-C, assumed leadership for DPPC in January 2010; Zeny, my secretary (now Specialist-Administrative Coordination); Yeyet (now Assistant Manager II); and Vel (now Officer – Database Administration). Our database developer Eric had moved from DPPC to IT Services (ITS) in 2004 to become coordinator of Management Information Systems, but working 35% of his time for DPPC. We felt that this move to ITS would help facilitate and strengthen the links between the various information systems at IRRI and the project management system in DPPC. And it did!

Corinta was appointed head of a new Office for External Relations after my retirement, encompassing the old DPPC (now renamed DRPC) as well as the Development Office, Public Relations Office, and National Programs Relations (although there have recently been – mid-2012 – some organizational changes after the appointment of a new DDG-Communications and Partnerships). In January 2012, Corinta was appointed a Director of the institute – a fitting recognition for someone who joined IRRI as a research assistant in 1975!

The processes and procedures we put in place, the databases and web site we built, and the rigorous assessment of donors and funding opportunities permitted DPPC to facilitate the generation of significant funding for IRRI. We developed a close and clear relationship with the donor community, and they got to know us as well, such that we could send an email or pick up the phone and get an immediate response (or more or less). IRRI’s reputation with the donors rose significantly, and the institute moved from a USD30 million to a USD65 million organization, raising funds from a wider pool of donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications I also had line management responsibility for five units: Communication & Publication Services (CPS), headed by Gene Hettel from the USA; the Library & Documentation Services (LDS), headed by Mila Ramos (now retired), Philippines; ITS, headed by Marco van den Berg, the Netherlands; the Development Office, which is the philanthropy side of IRRI, headed by Duncan Macintosh, Australia; and Program Planning, headed by Corinta Guerta, Philippines, seen left to right in the photo below.

On my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010, the DPPC staff enjoyed a last merienda together at IRRI’s coffee shop, The Bean Hub, shown in the photo below, L-R: Eric, Zeny, Corinta, me, Vel, and Yeyet.

Each Christmas, we’d get together as an office group and head off to a nice restaurant somewhere, or to my home for a barbecue, to enjoy each other’s company over a meal. In 2004, I took the team to Antonio’s, rated as one of the finest restaurants in Asia, in Tagaytay overlooking Lake Taal and its volcano. We had a wonderful meal, and this is one of my favorite photos of the DPPC team at that time (L to R: me, Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny).