Sowing the seeds of rice science

 Imelda R. Molina, Randolph Barker, Gelia T. Castillo, Pamela Castanar, and Noel Magor   |  

Over the last 3 years, a study has been conducted to document past IRRI training activities, assess the impact of IRRI training, and ask the question, “Where do we go from here?” This article summarizes the results of this study.

Valuing training activities
The Green Revolution has been associated with the development of high-yielding or modern rice varieties. However, the rapid and successful spread of the high-yielding varieties has been largely because of IRRI’s training program. Over the past half century, the training program has sown the seeds of rice science in every corner of the rice-growing world. Close to 12,000 rice scientists and extension workers have found their way to Los Baños, Laguna, where the IRRI Philippine headquarters is located.

From the start, IRRI management has recognized the need for training in both research and extension activities to achieve sustained increases in rice production. However, obtaining enough financial support for training has often been difficult. This has been particularly true in recent years, just when rapid changes in science and technology emphasize the need for a strong training and capacity-building program. In some countries, national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) staff now have a dearth of agricultural scientists to replace senior scientists who have reached retirement age and are not being replaced. In short, training has been undervalued.

A study of IRRI training activities
As of December 2010, a total of 11,599 trainees had benefited from the courses offered by IRRI, 10,031 in nondegree training and 1,568 in MS/PhD degree programs. The study examined, among other things, trends over time from 1962 to 2010 (see Fig. below, click to enlarge), which show an increase in female participants.

Non-degree training
From the 1960s to ’80s, 6-month and 2-week training courses focused on rice production. The 2-week rice production training courses were offered to IRRI staff members and Peace Corps volunteers. For some time, cropping systems and water management were of interest, too. Now, the short courses, usually 2–3 weeks, reflect a shift of interest, priorities of individual programs or scientists, and availability of funding. As a result, a set of training activities is much more diverse. Ideally, training activities should complement IRRI research priorities.

Degree training
Over time, scholars in crop management and agronomy have become fewer and those in socio-economics sharply decreased. But, scholars increased in areas such as plant breeding, genetics, genomics, and molecular biology. This trend is evident in universities in both This reflects that interest in traditional agricultural sciences has declined.

What the alumni say
When we surveyed 50 IRRI degree scholars (mostly alumni from the University of the Philippines Los Baños), all of them felt that the training program enhanced their capacity to contribute to research and development “at home.”

When asked to rank NARES research capacity and the demand for IRRI training, many of our alumni would like to continue a relationship with IRRI through further training and research opportunities.

Four of IRRI’s outstanding alumni, Jikun Huang of China, Jose Hernandez of the Philippines, Tin Htut of Myanmar, and Phan Hieu Hien of Vietnam, were recognized during IRRI’s 50th anniversary celebration in Hanoi in November 2010 for their significant contributions in advancing the Institute’s mission to reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health and welfare of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure protection of the rice-growing environment (see 2010 outstanding IRRI alumni). We asked an outstanding alumni awardee, Jikun Huang, director and professor of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences, to explain briefly how IRRI training has affected his career.

Dr. Huang says:
“The time I spent in IRRI as a PhD scholar and postdoctoral fellow was one of the most important experiences in my life. My training at IRRI has significantly influenced the way I work in at least three areas after I returned to China in 1992. First, I always followed what I learned at IRRI on how to prioritize policy issues for research, which is critical for decision making in developing countries, including China. Second, my IRRI experience has led me to decide in dedicating my entire research efforts to empirically based policy studies, which have helped me not only in publishing papers in academic journals, but more importantly in contributing to national policy making. Lastly, I learned the value of keeping the spirit of teamwork and engaging in multidisciplinary research that provided me opportunities to contribute to research in other fields using my knowledge in economics and policy.”

Impact of IRRI training
Reports were prepared on the impact of IRRI training in seven countries: Bangladesh (1964-2010), Cambodia (1987-2010), India (1964-2010), Laos (1993-2007), Myanmar (1989-2000), the Philippines (1963 to present), and Vietnam (1963-2010). Aside from NARES, a major beneficiary of the training programs has been IRRI itself in its research undertakings.

IRRI’s research and training programs have no doubt played a critical role in building the research capacity of many NARES in Asia. Several studies point to IRRI’s substantial contribution to the development of rice science and rice-related knowledge and technology and its dissemination and also to the establishment of a fully functional rice research system in NARES. In almost 50 years, IRRI has helped develop a well-trained cadre of research scientists and managers who are now providing scientific and management leadership in many agricultural research systems.

Where do we go from here?
Developing the IRRI training program database of various programs has taken considerable time. Now, it is a relatively easy task to continue and broaden the database on trainees.

Also, now would seem to be a good time to maintain stronger contacts with former IRRI scholars. This would include consulting with our outstanding alumni on their future needs. The alumni could assist IRRI, its donors, and NARES in planning future training and capacity-building activities. Also, IRRI should recognize and award outstanding alumni from time to time as it did in Hanoi in 2010.

It cannot be overemphasized that training has been the lifeblood of IRRI. Almost 12,000 scientists from IRRI and NARES have benefited from their IRRI training. IRRI management is prepared to continue to invest considerable resources in the training and development of the staff and NARES partners.


Dr. Molina is an associate scientist in IRRI’s Social Sciences Division (SSD). Ms. Castanar is a former professional service contract employee in SSD. Dr. Barker is a former SSD head and emeritus professor at Cornell University. Dr. Castillo is an IRRI consultant Dr. Magor is head of the Training Center at IRRI.

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