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Jul 082012
 
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Inside GCP today

Do a deep dive with Jean-Marcel into GCP’s ‘engine room’. What makes the Programme work? How is it structured and governed? For a geographically dispersed Programme with multi-institutional teams, what’s the trick that keeps the different parts moving and well-oiled to maintain forward motion and minimise friction? Get acquainted (and hopefully ‘infected’) with the ‘GCP Spirit’…

Jean-Marcel Ribaut (pictured) is the GCP Director. His work involves coordinating the research activities and overseeing finances, ensuring that at the end of the day that the overall Programme objectives are met. This means much multitasking, a great asset in running a multi-institutional partnership-based Programme. Jean-Marcel comes from a research background, although the research team he led while at CIMMYT was nothing the size of GCP…

…we’ve moved from exploration to application…underpinned by services and capacity building. To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that building capacity had to be a cornerstone in our strategy.”

How long have you been GCP Director?
Since 2005. My first two years were a steep learning curve!

The GCP tagline – ‘Partnerships in modern crop breeding for food security’  – what does this mean for you?
GCP is a very dynamic Programme. The kind of research that we were doing in 2005 is quite different from what we are doing today. As we implement our strategy, we’ve moved from exploration to application. We therefore revised our tagline to match this evolution, with the Programme now focussing much more on modern crop breeding and related aspects. We had naturally started by looking for diversity in the alleles, then evolved to gene discovery and developing supporting tools and markers alongside capacity building. Now, our focus is on application – using this diversity, markers and tools to progress to the next level, and boost the genetic gains for our nine key crops in challenging environments.

This application is underpinned by a service component through our Integrated Breeding Platform, as well as a strong capacity-building component for both human resources and infrastructure.

To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that building capacity had to be a cornerstone in our strategy.

We take an integrated approach … exploring new avenues but exercising due caution …we are not promoting molecular breeding as the magic bullet and only solution – it’s an additional useful tool for arriving at educated breeding decisions.

One of our objectives was to bridge the gap between upstream and downstream research in the teams we brought together. While we did have some failures where groups worked together for the project duration alone and didn’t continue their collaboration, we have had other cases where the teams we forged then have not only grown but also continued to work together – with or without us.”

Why is GCP’s work important?
Through our Research Initiatives, we focus on several crops, with relatively limited funding for each of them compared, say, to other much larger crop-specific initiatives supported for example by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So,  we operate on a proof-of-concept model: our goal is to demonstrate the use of new technologies and the application of out-of- the-box strategies which – if proven effective – will be funded and expanded by other agencies, including governments.

We take an integrated approach to problem-solving, exploring new avenues but exercising due caution while so doing. For example, for modern crop breeding which is our current focus, we are not promoting molecular breeding as the magic bullet and only solution – it’s an additional useful tool for arriving at educated breeding decisions.

…more than half our projects are led by scientists in developing countries

…The ‘GCP Spirit’ is visible and palpable: you can recognise people working with us have a spirit that is typical of the Programme.”

For you, what have been the major outcomes of the Programme so far?
Seeing developing-country partners come to the fore, and take the reins of project leadership. During Phase I, most project leaders were from CGIAR and advanced research institutes. However, over time, there has been a major shift and we are proud that today, more than half our projects are led by scientists in developing countries. They’ve moved from the position of implementers to the role of leaders, while CGIAR Centres and universities have taken a back seat, being more in a supporting role as mentors or tutors.

We have created this amazing chain of people, stretching  from the labs to the fields. This ‘human’ component is a terrific living asset, but it is also very difficult to scientifically quantify. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is as a ‘GCP Spirit’ created by the researchers we work with. The Programme’s ‘environment’ is friendly, open to sharing and is marked by a strong sense of community and ‘belonging’. The ‘GCP Spirit’ is visible and palpable: you can recognise people working with us have a spirit that is typical of the Programme.

One of our objectives was to bridge the gap between upstream and downstream research in the teams we brought together. While we did have some failures where groups worked together for the project duration alone and didn’t continue their collaboration, we have had other cases where the teams we forged then have not only grown but also continued to work together – with or without us.

A number of the partnerships we’ve forged have had a win–win outcome for players at opposite ends of the research–development spectrum. For example, academia tends to place a high premium on publications and theory, and relatively lower value on application and the real-world context. GCP provides a window for academics to apply their expertise, which benefits developing-country partners.

GCP’s relationship with project ppartners goes beyond funding. We are not just giving money; we are engaged in partnership with our project teams. We in management consult with them, interact and grapple over the technical issues with them in candour, and we toast and celebrate the successes together. I see our management style as fairly ‘paternal’, particularly for projects led by scientists from developing countries, but paternal in the positive sense of wanting to see these groups of people succeed, and us helping them to do so.

If a research site needs a pump for fieldwork, we work with a local or international consultant who will visit the partner and evaluate their needs, advise them on what type of pump they need, as well as other infrastructure they’ll need for the whole system to be sustainable. We’ll then provide training on how to use the pump most effectively.

It’s an investment in the people as much as in the products they are working on because we are trying to change the system of how science within partnerships is conducted and supported, as much as we are trying tap genetic diversity and breed resilient crops for the developing world.

Our successes have only been possible because of our ‘slim’ structure and the structural support we have enjoyed. With governance and advisory roles vested in an Executive Board and Consortium Committee, and with CIMMYT providing us with a legal and administrative home, we have minimal overheads and much flexibility. This agility has allowed us to adjust rapidly to changes when needed than, say, a classic research institute which would – quite rightly – have more rigid and elaborate obligatory steps, over a much longer time horizon.

…advocacy, persuasion and presenting a compelling business case are all necessary ingredients. Because we cannot be ‘directive’ with our partners in the manner their own institutes can be since they don’t ‘belong’ to us, we need to demonstrate success and convince people to adopt new business models.

How will GCP ensure sustainability?
Through our project Delivery Plans which link up a chain of users of our research products, and our Transition Strategy which shows how our research activities are embedded in the new CGIAR Research Programmes. We also hope to see our nascent communities of practice confer a sense of ownership to community members, and therefore sustainability. All that is on the ‘systematic’ and ‘documentation’ side of things.

Even more compelling is something I mentioned earlier, on the ‘organic’ and community side of things. Although it is completely outside our control, so to speak, it is wonderful to see that some of the partnerships we brought together have acquired a life of their own, and the teams we constituted are working together in other areas that have nothing to do with their GCP projects.

What are some of the lessons learnt so far?
The first one was focus. It’s very difficult to coordinate too many tasks, carried out by too many partners. Midstream in 2008, we had to review the way we were working and change course.

People management is the other. Cultivating relationships with people is critical. The trick is in balancing: by being cordial and friendly managers, we perhaps erode some of our authority over some of our project partners!

Another big lesson is that if it’s not working, don’t push it. Learn the lesson, cut your losses, and move on. Two main lessons have come from both our research and service aspects. For research, we invested in a massive fingerprinting exercise to characterise reference sets for all our 18 mandate crops at the time. [Editor's note: A ‘reference set’ is a sub-sample of existing germplasm collections that facilitates and enables access to existing crop diversity for desired traits, such as drought tolerance or resistance to disease or pests]

The results were not great, the documentation was poor, and it was very difficult reconciling the different datasets from the work. We ended up incurring extra costs for genotyping, to salvage the investment. Then for building the Integrated Breeding Platform, we’d initially involved all major actors in developing the ‘middleware’ – the ‘invisible’ part that links the tools, services and resources IBP provides to breeders, with the respective crop databases. This did not work, and we subcontracted the work to an external service provider.

In both cases, we erred on the side of inclusiveness since we wanted to have all the players on board, and to also facilitate their capacity-building-by-engagement. We have learnt the need to strike a balance between inclusiveness and capacity building on the one hand, and outsourcing to get the job done on the other.

Then there is behaviour change – changing people’s mindsets to adopt technology, since people tend to be naturally conservative. We’ve learnt that developing the tools and techniques is the easy part. The human component – changing how people do business, getting them to adopt a corporative and cooperative over an institutional focus – is a real challenge, and needs to be strongly demand-driven with clear short-term benefits.

Data management and quality control, their documentation, publication and sharing continue to dog us and it’s probably the greatest challenge, although not unique to GCP.

Finally, advocacy, persuasion and presenting a compelling business case are all necessary ingredients. Because we cannot be ‘directive’ with our partners in the manner their own institutes can be since they don’t ‘belong’ to us, we need to demonstrate success and convince people to adopt new business models.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your position at GCP?
More than one, actually.

We enable people, research teams and institutes to grow, thrive and stand on their own, and this is deeply gratifying; it is very rewarding to see people from developing countries growing and becoming leaders.

Working on different crops, with different partners, in different circumstances, and of different capacities is highly stimulating and brings a lot of diversity. My job is anything but boring!

I also appreciate being sheltered from the administrative burden our multi-institutional approach carries. The administrative load is ably borne by CIMMYT. This allows me to dedicate more of my time to supporting our research partnerships, institutional relationships and services to researchers.

I work with a small and dedicated team. As you can imagine, things are not always rosy, since a small team also means we operate in a ‘tight’ space and occasionally knock knuckles, and we also come from different cultures, but all these work to the good. This cultural diversity is actually a big plus, bringing a broader array of perspectives to the table. And the benefit of the ‘tight’ space is that, when there is a task to be done, the team spirit is incredible – everyone in the group, from management to office assistants, apply themselves to the task at hand. This is a fantastic experience!

Beyond the management and staff group, there is also the real GCP that is out there, which is highly stimulating, and I will end by sharing an excerpt from the external mid-term review report:

“Perhaps the most important value of GCP thus far, is the opportunities it has provided for people of diverse backgrounds to think collectively about solutions to complex problems, and, in the process, to learn from one another.”

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