Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dr Bob Zeigler showed us how to communicate with non-scientists

On May 3, IRRI welcomed ambassadors and consuls (or their representatives), members of the Los Banos community and of government offices during the Ambassadors' Day. Aside from the indoor exhibits (which included my group), the visitors were also shown the farm where the field experiments were being conducted.

Dr Bob Zeigler, IRRI's Director General, set the tone on how we, the exhibitors, should communicate to these visitors by opening the event with a presentation. Despite talking science, he largely avoided the use of technical jargon. And he talked with the gravitas of a person who leads one of the most important scientific endeavors in the world.

During Dr Zeigler's presentation, he said that the environment is changing (as shown by rising seawater levels, increasingly warmer temperatures, and more occurrences of extreme weather), the fields used to produce rice is shrinking, AND the rice-consuming population is growing. IRRI is contributing science and technology to ensure food security for this growing population of rice eaters. IRRI uses tools from modern biology to develop rice varieties that could thrive in drought, flood, and salty conditions (for example) without relying on increased fertilizer and pesticide inputs and still have increased yields. More importantly (for me at least), the grains harvested from these hardy and high-yielding varieties, should have acceptable taste and flavor to consumers because if people won't eat the rice, the impact of the improved variety couldn't be maximized.

To demonstrate the impact of IRRI's varieties, Dr Zeigler showed time-stamped photos of a farmer who, in 2008, planted submergence (flood)-tolerant rice seeds developed by IRRI. Despite other farmers' advice, he continued growing the crop despite the floods. When the floods subsided, he discovered that the plants did not die and he was able to harvest from this crop eventually. Now, millions of rice farmers facing similar flooding problems, are planting the same variety or newly developed varieties with the same tolerance to flooded conditions. The second Asian Green Revolution then, Dr Zeigler declared, began that fateful day -- July 31, 2008 -- when the lone farmer decided to keep his submerged crop in place.

As Dr Zeigler wrapped up his brief presentation, I thought that this was a perfect introduction to the exhibits. It was then our turn to show our visitors research highlights in a non-technical way and in five minutes per exhibit.

Timer starts now.