Los Banos(Philippines), July 7 : A unique course designed to inspire young scientists will develop the research leaders who can help prevent food crises such as that seen around the world in 2008, and which is a key topic being discussed by world leaders at the G -8 summit in Japan this week.
The "Rice: research to production" course, held for the second time on 19 May-6 June at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), brought ogether 29 participants from 13 countries across the developed and developing world.
The participants included undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from developed countries such as Canada, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and scientists from developing countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mozambique, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation in the United States, the Gatsby Foundation in the United Kingdom, and IRRI, the course also seeks to reverse the one-way traffic of recent decades that has seen thousands of young scientists from the developing world studying and then taking jobs in the developed world.
Students from the developed countries, many of whom had never set foot in a rice field before, began to understand the challenges rice farmers face in simply trying to grow enough food to feed themselves and their families.
"It's a long way from analyzing rice genes in a high-tech laboratory in a U.S. university to steering a water buffalo around a muddy rice field in provincial Philippines," said Noel Magor, head of IRRI's Training Center and one of the course organizers. "It's this sort of experience that can profoundly influence a young scientist's career."
"Many developed-country researchers are unaware of the impact their work can have in helping people from poorer countries overcome problems that farmers in richer areas could hardly imagine," said Susan McCouch, who devised the course with IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler and plant pathologist Hei Leung.
"By not only experiencing the challenges themselves, but also meeting and spending time with people from Africa and Asia who have to deal with these challenges, the students gain insights and inspiration that is nearly impossible from the comfort of their home," said Dr. McCouch, a professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University in the United States. "One of last year's students, for example, has completely revised his career course and is about to head to Ghana for one year."
For participant Stacey Simon, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Delaware in the United States, the course offered her first experience in a real rice field. Dr. Simon, who works on the molecular biology of rice, said she was for the first time thinking about the applications of her research. "I'm now considering international work, and that's something I've never thought about before. I also understand the importance of connections with people outside my own field, especially those who work directly with farmers."
Melanie Sanborn, a graduate student in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education at Penn State University, Pennsylvania, agreed that the knowledge and connections developed over the 3 weeks would shape her career. "I'd like to create lessons about international agriculture for high school students-I want to help inspire and train a future generation of rice scientists," she said.
Lorena Pedro Francisco, a private-sector agronomist from Mozambique, learned far more than she expected. "Now I feel more able to make a difference in my own country," she said.
Building research capacity in Africa, where rice is an increasingly important food, is very important if the continent is to shake its reliance on imports from Asia. Another participant, Abubakary Kijoji, a plant physiologist from Tanzania, said that his country of 38 million has a mere five rice breeders for what is now the nation's second largest crop.
Countries worldwide are struggling to attract people into careers in agricultural research. This is especially troubling because one of the major reasons for the recent food price increase is stagnating productivity growth due to a decline in technological advances produced by public agricultural research such as that performed at IRRI.
Prolonged periods of low food prices through the 1980s and early 1990s-spurred by technology-driven improvements in productivity-led many governments and funding agencies to believe that cheap food was here to stay. A consequent disinvestment in public agricultural research and nfrastructure has stemmed the flow of new technologies and the world is now paying the price.
Recent calls from organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for countries to reinvest in agriculture are welcome, but without the personnel to make use of new funding-if it does come-improvements will be limited. Some African countries, for example, rely on a single rice breeder to develop locally adapted improved varieties. Many countries in Asia and Latin America, too, suffer a dearth of qualified researchers and plant breeders.
The course aims to create a new generation of plant scientists who are well networked into the international community and understand the importance of integrating plant science and community-based knowledge in addressing global problems. It provided the participants with an understanding of the basics of rice production; familiarity with the germplasm (seeds and the genetic material they contain) collection at IRRI and current issues related to germplasm exchange and property rights; an appreciation of the research objectives of IRRI and its development partners; hands-on skills relating to rice breeding; an understanding of how to structure effective international collaborations; and the knowledge and personal contacts to work effectively as part of international research teams in the future.
The organizers, who will run the course again in 2009, hope to secure additional funding to extend this unique opportunity for young scientists to make a real-world difference.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world's leading rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines, with offices in 13 other countries, IRRI is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers.