At the start of a new year, CIP takes time to reflect on its research and research-related achievements of the past year. In 2019, CIP scientists published more articles in internationally-renowned scientific journals than any previous year in its existence. To understand the value of an achievement such as this, and how it translates into value for our beneficiaries, Managing Editor Christopher Butler sat down with Deputy Director General for Research and Development, Oscar Ortiz, and Director of Research, Hugo Campos, to understand why these publications matter and what they mean for the future of CIP and its partners around the world.
2019 was CIP’s most successful year in terms of scientific publications. But what stands out for you? What does the volume of scientific publications say about our organization?
Campos: What stands out to me is the fierce commitment that CIP scientists have to their work, our center, donors and, most important of all, to the smallholder farmers and their families who rely on potato and sweetpotato for food security. CIP scientists must wear many hats. They spend much time on the ground working closely with diverse partners implementing projects, some of them directly with farming communities. At the same time, they address the needs from donors, writing updates, reports, and research proposals. To me, the fact that, in addition to such activities, they have managed to produce so much quality research is quite impressive and must be commended. I am enormously proud of CIP scientists. Their research production informs our projects and enhances our ability to contribute more, and faster, to improve the quality of life and well-being of small farmers.
Ortiz: From my perspective, for research for development organizations like CIP, which works translating science into practical applications, one of the key indicators of success is the rate of publication in international journals. 2019 has been special in that sense and reflects the great work our scientists are doing. But also reflects the great connection we have with international communities of science in developed and developing countries. Many of our publications are partnerships with other organizations in developed countries, and with national partners in developing countries. This is an important indicator about those partnerships, because it reflects a process of on-the-job capacity building.
Campos: I want to add that the science behind our implementation on the ground can and has to be competitive at the international level. However, at the end of the day, producing excellent science is a means to an end, since such science must be translated and have meaningful impact on the quality of life for smallholder farmers, which is our ultimate goal
How do scientific publications translate in delivery for CIP’s partners and beneficiaries?
Ortiz: Publications are one mechanism by which the results of our research are made available to the international community. As an international organization, we focus on international or regional public goods widely available through open access mechanisms, meaning that research can be used by different organizations in different countries. The next user are the science communities in our partner organizations and we particularly target our publications to be used by these scientists and students. Because most of our publications are relevant to developing country contexts. However, this is just one step because our mission is to provide solutions to potato and sweetpotato constraints to smallholder farmers around the world, not only at the field level, but also at the value chain, nutrition and agri-food system levels. So scientific publications are the first step to work with our partners to develop concrete technologies, such as new varieties, and best practices that can be delivered to farmers on the ground.
Campos: Publications are also a very effective way to keep attracting the human talent we need to keep improving the quality of what we do at CIP. In other words, for attracting and retaining talent, publications are increasingly important as well.
We know there is a movement toward integrating Big Data into agricultural research. How does CIP plan to utilize Big Data in the future?
Campos: There are several ways. For one, we are trying to modernize our sweetpotato and potato breeding programs, which creates a massive amount of data points that we need to make sense of. So, we are developing processes, systems and databases to analyze such data and to make that data available in user-friendly ways to our breeders and scientists. This work enables CIP to accelerate the development of new varieties, and more importantly, to increase the rate of genetic gains. Big data will also make a large impact in all our work focused on improving climate-resilience. Another application of Big Data in our work relates to the study of viruses in potato and sweetpotato, since virology research, by and large, is conducted with DNA and RNA genomic sequences. CIP’s leading virologist, Jan Kreuze, has developed novel methods based on Big Data and genomic sequences to identify all known viruses and novel viruses in potato, sweetpotato and other crops. These sequences are even used to identify viruses in humans. We are also using Big Data tools to manage our genebanks. Our team, led by Noelle Anglin, manages tens of thousands of different genotypes and increasingly uses digital tools for more effective management.
Ortiz: Not only to do we have a commitment to big data, but also to open access and making data available to the international community of researchers. It’s critical that we publish our work under open access conditions (open to public) to accelerate the sharing of information and to make it available to everyone, anywhere in the world. We are encouraging our scientists to publish all our journal articles as open access. Open access has greatly promoted the success of our book The Potato Crop that was published in February. In the first two months following its publication, it was downloaded nearly 70,000 times! The open access feature facilitated that interest. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to reach so many readers compared to a traditional, printed copy of our book.
Scientific publications are just one aspect of a culture of research. How do you promote a culture of research for CIP? What other elements are important?
Ortiz: By tradition, CIP promotes multi-disciplinary research. CIP was one of the first places where social scientists worked together with natural scientists. That interaction resulted in different views and improved technology and innovations. It was the beginning of what we now call participatory research, involving the users in the process of research to deliver better technology for farmers and extension workers. The culture of CIP is a culture of impact. The idea that we reach smallholders around the world with different technologies such as new potato and sweetpotato varieties that are climate-resilient and nutritious. The publications are one way to promote a culture of scientific excellence among CIP staff.
Campos: It’s about the incentives. At CIP we strive to excel in everything we do, including research. Research is at the core of what CIP does. We make funding available to scientists who publish under open access conditions, and they are rewarded with funding to attend scientific conferences of their choosing where they can share their research and learn from peers. In some cases, we have provided internal writing workshops to our scientists or sought external support to enhance our scientific and writing capabilities. At the end of the day, achieving scientific excellence doesn’t happen randomly; it happens by design. I am very proud because at CIP we have come a long way in terms of enhancing the excellence of our work, and certainly plan to keep improving it in the years to come.
In the future, Ortiz and Campos said they were hoping to generate more research to build relationships with the private sector to accelerate and upscale innovations. They also look forward to more collaboration with other scientific institutes dedicated to genomics, big data and other fields where CIP can be positioned to make important discoveries and “make them useful” to poor farming families around the world.
CIP makes all of its research available on CGSpace, the CGIAR-wide repository for papers, brochures, reports, and other publications. It is open access.