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Knowledge Sharing in Developing Countries: A Personal Account


I enjoy what I do and I believe in it. I witness science and technology making a difference in the lives of people and I try to communicate this with the public. Although no longer a practicing scientist, I believe that science and technology will continue to play an important role in contributing to poverty alleviation and food security. In my 2 years with the ISAAA (see box), I have seen and heard accounts of the many benefits that new agricultural technologies are bringing to farmers in developing countries. For example, my colleague and I were able to see the positive impact of Bt cotton (genetically modified cotton able to resist insect pests) on the lives of small-scale farmers in Indonesia. Due to the lower costs of production (lower pesticide use) and higher yields resulting from the planting of Bt cotton, farmers have experienced increased incomes. One of the farmers we interviewed was even proud to welcome us to his new house that ?Bt cotton built.?

These are the messages that ought to be shared with the rest of the world, but unfortunately it is not happening. Crop biotechnology is currently caught in a maelstrom of controversy. There is a convergence of diverse issues, including scientific, political, economic, ethical, cultural, and even religious viewpoints being espoused by different stakeholders. Aggravating the situation is the growing campaign to sow misinformation in the mass media. Activist groups lobby for a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops and demand a stop to field trials. Catholic priests and nuns ask local government units to refrain from giving support to GM activities in the community. Scientists battle it out with various groups that link the technology to multinational greed and ?playing God.? Responding to all the different concerns of such a diverse group of stakeholders has become a real challenge.

What Is ISAAA?

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) is a not-for-profit organization that delivers the benefits of new agricultural biotechnologies to the poor in developing countries. Our strategy works not only to transfer these powerful technologies but also to establish an environment in which they can be used safely and effectively. Established in 1991, ISAAA is co-sponsored by public and private institutions from around the world.

ISAAA is a small, responsive, nonbureaucratic international network with centers in the Philippines (SEAsia Center), Kenya (Africenter), and the United States (Americenter).

Its strategy consists of four key components: 1) Priority identification--we respond to the crop biotechnology needs and priorities identified by developing countries; 2) Technology appraisal--we work to identify, evaluate, and facilitate the acquisition of new crop biotechnology applications; 3) Project implementation--we implement a portfolio of crop biotechnology projects that have a potential for near-term impact in food, feed, fiber crops, and forestry; and 4) Services for the enabling environment--we provide advice and services to assist in the development of an enabling environment to support the safe application of crop biotechnology. Overarching all these initiatives is a consideration of biosafety, food safety, intellectual property management, and knowledge sharing.

In this environment, communication is vital. Together with a colleague I lead the ISAAA?s knowledge sharing initiative, which is based on the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology (KC) and its network of biotechnology information centers (BIC).

What Is the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology?

The KC is a science-based information network which facilitates the flow of information and exchange of experiences on crop biotechnology between and among the developed countries (North) and the developing world (South). In addition, it promotes the public understanding of scientific advances in crop biotechnology and their implications for the consistent availability of sufficient quantities of food, feed, and fiber.

The KC initiative arose in response to a request from senior policy-makers and national program leaders from several developing countries. They recommended that a service be established by ISAAA to address the need to provide readily available and authoritative information about crop biotechnology to developing countries. The dearth of information was considered the single most important constraint hindering decision-making regarding crop biotechnology. Hence, in September 2000, the KC was born.

This was just about the time that I joined ISAAA, so I have been privileged to be part of KC?s conception and growth. Today, the KC has become more than any of us ever imagined. With its base at the ISAAA SEAsia Center in the Philippines, the KC has grown into a global information network with nodes at several biotech information centers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

KC?s Biotech Information Centers

Biotechnology Information Centers (BICs) are at the heart of the KC. These centers are expected to respond to specific information needs and to promote and advance a broader public understanding of crop biotechnology in specific developing countries. At present, there are four fully operational national/regional nodes that are functionally and organizationally linked to ISAAA: the Malaysia Biotechnology Information Center based in Kuala Lumpur; the Philippines Biotechnology Information Center based in Los Baños; the Thailand Biosafety and Biotechnology Information Center based in Kamphaengsaen; and the Kenya Biotechnology Information Center based in Nairobi. Discussions are under way, and funding is being sought, to set up further BICs in China, Indonesia, India, and West Africa.

All four existing BICs have created their own identities and have been recognized locally as one of the main sources of crop biotechnology information. They have established networks and communication lines among various stakeholders, including the media, policy-makers, farmers, food and feed industries, and the concerned public, through collaborative workshops and seminars, information in the media, their Web sites, and the distribution of promotional materials (brochures, information leaflets, etc).

KC also collaborates with existing institutions and organizations in Asia, Latin America, and Africa to do local language translation of materials and dissemination of information.

One of my main responsibilities within the KC is to continuously scan the news and agri-biotech environment in both the North and the South, and develop this intelligence into information briefs, backgrounders, and articles for the media, scientists, and policy-makers. I also coordinate and provide relevant information to all BICs and ensure that there is a constant dynamic exchange of information between the core KC and the BICs. I do a lot of traveling to help me in the job because in my experience, there is nothing better than face-to-face communication when establishing effective partnerships based on mutual respect and trust.

My Own Career

I arrived in the United Kingdom in September 1992 to do my undergraduate degree in biotechnology at Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. I had always enjoyed the sciences in school, particularly biology, but I had never expected to make a career out of it. Thus, it came as surprise to my family and friends (and even to myself!) that I wanted to pursue a PhD after graduating from university in 1995. I spent three and a half years at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. My thesis focused on the effects of plant virus replication on its host plant. It was a new and challenging experience for me, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

By the end of the PhD in late 1999, however, I realized that I wanted to try something different but had no idea where to start looking. I even visited the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and spoke to a leading tuberculosis scientist to see whether a shift into medical science would be more rewarding. I was struck by what he asked me, and this has made all the difference: ? Why do you want to shift from agricultural science to medical science? Do you realize that you can probably help more people by providing them with more food??

After a 4-month break in Tanzania, I decided to return home to the Philippines to look for a job. I received several offers of research positions but I knew that I did not really want to go back into research. The trouble was that I also did not know what I did want. It was only when I heard about ISAAA and its new knowledge sharing initiative, through a colleague, that I started to get excited again. It sounded perfect--a mixture of science and communication. I was to help establish the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology. This was a classic case of perfect timing and luck--something that others would also call fate.