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The hustle is on: me and Bill Gates

by Eric Boa

"What does this all mean for me?"

My training to become a research scientist was lengthy, frustrating and absorbing. The future after getting my PhD in 1981 was uncertain and job prospects were few. Friends and family were puzzled when I described what I hoped to do for a career. They were also encouraging, though “that sounds interesting” wasn’t the resounding assurance I was hoping for.


Yet the thrill of asking questions and sleuthing was and still is a powerful motivator. I knew it was going to be difficult to work with tree diseases for the rest of my career and wasn’t even sure I wanted to continue in this area. No time for equivocation. I had to find a job. Suitable openings were few and far between but eventually I landed my first job, in Bangladesh, studying a bamboo disease, funded by the UK Government. Friends and families were even more puzzled. Bangladesh was newly independent, struggling to establish itself after a bloody war and widely known as a “basket case”, Henry Kissinger’s dismissive and contemptuous description.


I ignored this. It was research and it sounded intriguing. I had money for equipment, field work and laboratory investigations for the next six years. Next stop Indonesia and a clove disease project, also with supporting research budget. I assumed this is how it would continue to work: get job and be provided with the necessary funds to ask questions and sleuth. Short-term contracts meant that job security was always a worry, but I was optimistic that prospects would improve as I delivered results and gained experience.


I returned to a UK-based post in 1991, still doing research linked to international development. The short-term contracts continued. I was nearly forty years old and job security was still shaky. Worse was to follow when I discovered that I had few funds provided by the research institute to do my work. I had to bid for every project in open competition with fellow scientists as well as those from other organisations. The hustle was on. My time was charged to projects and contract extensions were related to how much ‘cover’ I obtained. I enjoyed developing ideas and expanding my portfolio of interests, as well as working in new places. I was less enthusiastic about the effort this required and nervous about the consequences of failing.


The hustling slowly produced results. My first major project was on agroforestry trees in Central America, a region that I’d longed to visit after reading Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonia Express. The excitement at winning the bid was tempered by the fact that it was only for a year and only paid for three-months’ staff time. I continued to hustle and hit the big time a year later when I got a three-year project on rural bamboo in India. Again, it only covered three months of my time in any one year, but it was further proof of showing I was a valuable member of staff.


Radical changes pushed by the Conservative Government continued to disrupt and threaten research careers. International development was particularly vulnerable because it was a low priority for the Tories, but eventually other scientists in the UK began to feel the pressures of having to fund their own jobs. I moved to a new organisation in 1995, also in the UK, because my first employer crumbled under the relenting demands for efficiencies and budget cuts. I found a hidden advantage with my bamboo project; I could transfer funds to a new employer, smoothing a move which I had initiated because of diminishing prospects. Have project, can travel.


In the late 1990s I began to work on wild edible mushrooms in Malawi. Money was available for topics not covered by other research programmes. The managers liked my three-year proposal, and so began a long association with wild edible mushrooms on a global canvas. I’d moved a long way from tree diseases as a result of hustling. All was not smooth bidding; there were many failed bids, but I was gaining wider experience and developing new collaborations, particularly with social scientists. International development was emphasising the involvement of people and communities in projects, articulated in the Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000.


This set the scene for a new type of project with a sharper focus on applying knowledge for the benefit of people in the global South (‘developing nations’). And so to my ultimate hustle and biggest challenge of all: an attempt to get money from the Big Daddy of international development funds, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). No disrespect to the ex Mrs Gates, who now has her own funds and programmes, but I always saw Bill Gates as the ultimate gatekeeper and decider of who got funds. The ultimate hustle began with an invitation to submit a proposal on plant health. Many years of developing a model for basic plant health clinics integrated with agricultural advisory services and supported by research institutes and other government organisations had finally brought the attention it deserved.


My employer, the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), was thrilled. BMGF funded multi-million dollar projects. Having one showed that you had arrived and were a major player in international development. Success for me meant professional recognition and, more importantly, the biggest challenge and thrill of all: putting your ideas to work on a grand scale and making a real and lasting difference to peoples’ live.


Nothing had prepared me for the effort required to prepare the proposal. We formed a small group and consulted widely across my organisation. We worked closely with a dedicated BMGF programme officer. Budgets were constructed, theories of change were created as the details and shape of our proposal slowly came together. First we had to produce a concept proposal. I was in Kathmandu when I received news that this had been accepted. I jumped up and down on my hotel bed and had an adrenaline rush that lasted for a day.


I also realised this was only the beginning. It took six months, long days and nights, countless meetings and lots of back and forward comments and revisions. We passed all the vetting and the proposal was officially submitted to the board. Hopes were high when I received the phone call from our dedicated programme officer, who had nursed, probed and encouraged us at every stage. He was deeply sorry. The ultimate hustle had failed. I was fifty-seven and this seemed like the end of the road.


The putting together of the proposal was an enthralling and deeply rewarding intellectual exercise. We were challenged to create an ambitious project that I’m immensely proud of. BMGF turned us down at the very last moment and, to their credit, recognized that they’d let us down. Fortunately other donors were more impressed and over the next twelve years CABI obtained huge funding from other donors. My own career had come to halt, at least with my employer, and I left CABI a year later.

 Plant Clinic in Nicaragua

I continue to hustle as an independent consultant, but on a smaller scale and in a more gentle manner. Twenty years of bidding for projects was exhausting, often disappointing but ultimately thrilling. Projects have taken me around the world, allowed me to work with wonderful people in enthralling places and delivered huge professional and personal rewards. None of this would have happened without a fight to have my ideas accepted. Research careers in international development are still uncertain and constantly under threat but it is possible to succeed with a little hustle here and there.


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