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Champions for Changing a Challenging Conversation

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Sarah Evanega

Few topics are more exalted than food, and few are more vilified than genetically modified food.

It’s a subject that has elicited worldwide antipathy and confusion, in part because it’s scientifically hard to understand, but easy to demonize and mischaracterize, be it by the fearful and misinformed, or those with financial interests at stake.

So it was a rather daunting task, four years ago, to launch the Cornell Alliance for Science — a global initiative that seeks to positively change the international conversation around agricultural biotechnology and put science at the forefront of policies affecting its use.

Fortunately, we had an early champion in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided core funding, as well as a framework for our work within the context of some of its own initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  The foundation also assisted us initially in forging several key partnerships that remain integral to the global network we’re building and help ensure that our international activities are collaborative, and not “top down” from the West. We have continued to nurture these early affiliations and foster new ones through the careful selection of our advisory board, which serves to keep us connected to researchers, educators, policy-makers, investors, and others around the world.

Another crucial mechanism for creating enduring international partnerships has been our Global Leadership Fellows Program, a 12-week training course held in the fall at Cornell University. This innovative program empowers science champions with the skills and knowledge needed to effectively communicate about the science of ag biotech and advocate for evidence-based policies in their home countries. The Fellows course is complemented by two-to-seven-day regional short courses, held in such locales as Tanzania, Mexico, Kenya, Thailand, and Hawaii.  We recently added courses specific to farmers in developing nations and Western post-graduate science students to help them build communications skills specific to their fields.

The Fellows and other trainees provide us with a superb opportunity for networking through their institutions, colleges, research facilities, professional associations, social affiliations, and even churches. An unexpected benefit of our training program has been the way that trainees serve as an ongoing source of inspiration for core Alliance staff. We are continually energized by the passion and dedication of Fellows and trainees. As scientists, educators, farmers, business leaders, and policy-makers, they have first-hand knowledge of the need for agricultural innovation in their countries. They also have witnessed, and even experienced, the personal hardships associated with hunger, poverty, and limited opportunity, and this informs their efforts with an authenticity and fire that would be missing in someone from the outside trying to conduct advocacy efforts.

Another important aspect of our work is developing credible multimedia resource materials that accurately convey the science of biotechnology, as well as the compelling human stories behind this technology. We strive to tell stories that most have not heard: the selfless dedication of public sector scientists trying to improve crops in their homeland; the subsistence farmers who are clamoring for solutions to crop devastation caused by drought, insects, and disease; the small-holder farmers, many of them women, who have lifted their families out of poverty by growing genetically engineered crops. The blog posts, resource materials, photographs, and videos compiled on our website are designed to help lay people understand the role that biotechnology can play in resolving social justice issues, such as hunger and poverty, while also addressing such urgent matters as climate change and reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture.

It’s taken some time to smooth out the coordination, but our training and communications programs now work in harmony to advance our key message: the critical need to ensure that science informs policy. We’ve been heartened in the last two years to see other organizations and governmental entities take up this rallying cry, and we’re now riding the wave of energy around evidence-based decision-making.

As a start-up, we’ve experienced the same struggles that many entrepreneurs face in turning a vision into a concrete plan of action. We had a dream, and plenty of enthusiasm, but it has taken us three years to work out the nuts and bolts of effectively coordinating and managing our activities. Creating that management structure, especially within the existing framework of a venerable institution like Cornell University, has required diplomacy, planning, perseverance, and sheer hard work. We’ve made missteps, but through relentless program reviews, post-training evaluations, and ongoing scrutiny of our traditional and social media impressions, we’re continuing to hone our activities.

Ultimately, our success to date can be attributed to the dedication and passion of our team: the core staff, global trainees, and advisory board members. If you don’t believe wholeheartedly in the value of your own mission, it’s virtually impossible to bring others on board.


Sarah Evanega is the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science and senior associate director of International Programs in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She earned her doctorate degree in plant biology from Cornell University, where she also holds an adjunct appointment in the section of Plant Breeding & Genetics in the Integrated School of Plant Sciences at Cornell.

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