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Science and Storytelling

In the 1970s, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug’s work on high yielding wheat varieties unleashed unprecedented levels of new funding for developing country agriculture. One of the major recipients was CGIAR, formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Founded in 1971, CGIAR’s global network of research centers generated research that helped countries like India produce enough food to feed their people and avert famine. But funding slowed after the mid-1980s as funders felt that the problem of food security had been largely solved. While money continued to flow, albeit more slowly, CGIAR officials took a hard look at their programs and decided not only to do a better job of documenting impact, but to generate a new approach to how they communicated the results of their research.

We sat down recently with a group of key actors from that time — communicators from CGIAR Centers Ed Sulzberger, Tiff Harris and Nathan Russell, as well as Ebbe Schiøler from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), to find out what happened.

You were central figures in the history of CGIAR communications.  What happened in the 1980s to funding and why?

Ed – It started slowly as funders began voicing concerns about documenting impact, and as we came under fire from NGOs for promoting technology that they claimed failed to benefit smallholder farmers. By the mid-80s, the centers began to understand that the free-flowing funding that they had come to rely on was becoming scarcer and a small group of communicators  were asked to study the problem.

We concluded that the centers were focusing their communications work almost entirely on other scientists and that they needed to reach out to donors and their constituents. Over the course of a decade we basically did a one-eighty; we changed from being a community of science writers and publishers to a network of communicators that put a premium on reaching out to the public.

Nathan – There was also a geo-political angle to the funding issue. In the 1990s, prices of the major staple crops had been declining for nearly 20 years and many funders thought that agricultural research was no longer an urgent priority. The end of the Cold War also changed the way people thought about the Green Revolution, which had been seen by some as a counter-measure to the “Red Revolution.”

How did you make the case to start telling the story differently?

Tiff – In 1989 and 1990, the centers started seeing really dramatic cuts in funding, and this caused a big upheaval. In a sense it was a crisis of faith, which some center directors took quite personally. They saw themselves as men of science out on the front line working for humanity, and many couldn’t understand why the rug was being pulled out from underneath them.

One thing we learned was that unless you have senior managers who recognize the importance of good story telling and are willing to invest in it, the problem festers. Fortunately, there was a small group of center directors and information officers and funders* who had the vision to invest in public awareness and fight for it.

*Center Directors: Richard Sawyer, Trevor Williams, Donald Winkelmann, Hubert Zandstra, Per Pinstrup Anderson, Center Information Officers: Tom Hargrove, Robert Huggan, Susan MacMillan, Ruth Raymond, Barbara Rose, Geoffory Hawtin; Donors: Peter Greening (World Bank); Frank Karel (Rockefeller Foundation), Rosina Salerno (Italy), Francois Vicariot (France), Ulrich von Poschinger Camphausen (Germany).

Ed – While we had realized that public awareness was the way to make our case and that the tide was turning in terms of legitimizing this new approach, we still had to convince the bench scientists and many of the communications folks at the centers. Up until then center communicators basically spent their days editing science papers and producing annual reports, some of which resembled telephone directories.  We had to convince the traditional science writers and editors that the game was changing and that funders and policymakers weren’t much interested in reading technical reports or learning about the inner workings of a science bureaucracy. One of the most important things we learned was that it’s not the organization that sells the science; it’s the great stories about the science that sell the organization.

How does media coverage of research actually lead to a better outcome for funding?

Ed – Well, it’s not just about raising new money, it’s also a matter of keeping what you’ve got. Unless your funders have compelling evidence that their money is being put to good use, the people who make decisions about funding see little point in sustaining support. Our job as communicators was to help make the case in top-tier international media for what was happening in the field, namely that our research was having an impact and that hundreds of millions of people were better off for it. This provided the ammunition for our champions in the funding agencies, people like Ebbe Schiøler, who had to argue the case for sustaining their investment in the centers.

Ebbe – At DANIDA (the Danish International Development Agency) we weren’t seeing stories in the Danish media about CGIAR work. But the fact that the centers began telling their stories helped us build our advocacy work for international agricultural research. We believed that the CGIAR was a good cause but we needed continual reinforcement to fight for the funds.

Although funding for development aid in Denmark was on the rise in the 1980s, the CGIAR was competing for the same pool of funds that organizations like the World Health Organization were targeting. What put them ahead was their approach to showing impact, and they did this by being very transparent, having regular reviews and demonstrating that there was no over-spending. Getting stories into the Danish press helped to reinforce that idea from an independent source. In other words, it wasn’t just the centers and their advocates in the civil service saying so, the media was carrying the message and they were doing so in more dramatic ways than we could from the inside.

Did it take a long time for this new communications mindset to take hold?

Tiff – We didn’t have the internet back then and telephone service to places like the Philippines or Kenya was expensive and unreliable so we organized meetings to talk about science publishing and then met informally and talked about public awareness. It wasn’t easy at first, and we had to meet undercover, at places like the Frankfurt Book Fair where our colleagues would go to promote their publications.  None of this would have been possible, however, without the support of some of the center Directors and donors like Ebbe Schiøler.

Nathan – At first lot of people thought what we were doing was crass, it seemed unscientific and inappropriate. That was especially so among the rank and file scientists who were accustomed to unrestricted funding, but it was also true of many of our communications colleagues who were entrenched in the world of science publishing.

Ed – The big turning point came in 1988 when we convinced a senior editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times to go to Kenya and write about the search for a new vaccine for livestock sleeping sickness. Suddenly we were able to demonstrate that it was possible to tell our story in the top-tier media outlets. But the adjustment took time, it varied from center to center, and some of our colleagues never really got it. Scientists and journalists are trained very differently. A researcher will communicate his or her work through journal articles and scientific fora and then only what they can actually prove, whereas journalists are trained to produce stories that make ordinary people sit up and pay attention.

Nathan – For my part, change happened quite by accident. Although I had participated to some extent in the early center’s public awareness work, I was still functioning mainly as a science editor in the early 1990s in Colombia. That all changed, however, when my colleague Tom Hargrove was kidnapped by the FARC guerillas and I took over his job. Tom had just led a successful public awareness campaign about a special effort in Rwanda to introduce new crop varieties after the genocide, which generated lots of media coverage. Examples like Tom’s set the standard among center information officers and really helped to change not just the way I worked, but the way many of our colleagues did their jobs.Today, I would say that the centers employ just as many if not more people working in the public awareness area than they do in traditional science publishing.

What kinds of stories proved the most successful? Can you give me examples?

Ed – We had a lot of great story material to choose from. That was partly because the Centers did such great science, but also because they kept so many of their best stories under wraps. Linking to the news of the day was key, and that meant focusing on the environment. Remember that this was during the time leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. We all felt that our strongest suit rested with the center’s genetic resources work and the vast collections of crop materials that had been collected. This represented a big departure from the CGIAR’s traditional focus on crop productivity and the story of the Green Revolution. From that point on, things unfolded rather quickly. Within a period of just a couple of years, the centers’ work was being showcased at the Smithsonian, in National Geographic and in newspapers like the New York Times and the Economist.  You couldn’t have bought better coverage.

The other thing we did was make a deliberate effort to tell the center’s stories from the point of view of the scientists. This was partly to counteract the portrayal of researchers in pop culture as nerds hiding out in their labs or, even worse, as mad scientists out to destroy the world. The idea of the heartless, uncaring researcher was definitely part of the message promoted by center critics in the NGO community. Too often our scientists were characterized as errand boys for multinational companies controlled by the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation and there was no one out there putting up a defense, let alone trying the change the narrative.  The effort began slowly, of course, but we were really able to road test the idea at the Potato Center in Lima.

What’s the secret to getting a journalist’s attention?

Ed – It helps to have a sound strategy, of course, but luck plays a role too. In the early 90s international journalists were travelling to Peru routinely to cover the terrorism story and the Shining Path guerrillas. The word got around the press corps that if you took a cab down to the Potato Center, you’d get a good story about potatoes. Apparently, nothing makes a newspaper editor back home happier than a feature story that they don’t have to pay extra for.  As it turned out, the Potato Center’s work was about the only good news coming out of Peru for three or four years. Part of the novelty was that no one could believe that despite the terrorism all this great science was going on. We got a front page Wall Street Journal story out of that as well as major coverage in the Washington Post and many of the major European and Japanese papers.

Nathan – What Ed’s work in Peru and Tom Hargrove’s work in Colombia showed was that linking to the news agenda is really the key. That lesson holds true even today. The 2008 financial crisis did result in donor fatigue, but climate change and the food price crisis of 2008 have provided a context for the media to stay engaged with our work.

So did all this lead to better levels of funding?

Nathan – Yes, we we’re definitely seeing more funding coming than in the 1990s, although it seems harder to get and there are more strings attached. We’re working harder for it, no doubt, and part of that extra effort means doing a better job of getting the word out.

Ebbe – It’s true what Nathan says. Funding levels did increase, and we saw increasing support for development work in Denmark right up until 2001. But it wasn’t only the result of better public awareness work. The battle cry was also about impact, and evaluation. We needed proof of impact, and evidence that money was being well spent. These two things worked hand-in-hand: doing more evaluation to prove impact of research combined with much better storytelling.

Looking back, what was your biggest achievement?

Tiff – Today many funders insist on the importance of communications and the centers are working hard to get their stories out. It's mainstream, but in the 1980s and 90s that wasn’t the case. Shifting our focus was a struggle with much hand wringing and endless discussion. People may take this for granted today, but it wasn’t an easy sell. You’d think it would be self-evident, but it’s not.

Ed –  One of our most important achievements was creating the link between communications and fund-raising, an idea that’s now being mainstreamed across the CGIAR system. CIAT, where Nathan works, is a good example of how important the concept really is and where it is working. The other lesson learned was that you can’t hide behind the science.  If you do, you’ll probably lose funding and you certainly leave yourself open to attack from people who don’t agree with your agenda. It was true in the 80s and 90s and it’s even more true in a media culture dominated by social media.


The history of CGIAR dates back to 1943, when the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government set up the Office of Special Studies, which became the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). CIMMYT and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developed high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties that dramatically increased production of these staple cereals. In 1970, the Rockefeller Foundation proposed a worldwide network of agricultural research centers under a permanent secretariat. With support from the World Bank, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN’s Development Programme (UNDP), CGIAR was established in 1971 to coordinate international agricultural research efforts aimed at reducing poverty and achieving food security in developing countries.