Gabrielle Persley: bridging bioscience and development

By Robin Davies

From Queensland sugar to African livestock and beyond, Gabrielle Persley has been at the forefront of international agricultural developments for more than thirty years.


From the ashes of the papyrus bonfire that was the ancient library of Alexandria rose, eventually, a modern replacement. Ismael Serageldin, formerly Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development at the World Bank, was Founding Director of the new library of Alexandria when it opened in 2002.

To help him organise the library’s first conference, on biotechnology and sustainable development, Serageldin turned to an energetic Queenslander who had been his biotechnology adviser at the Bank, Gabrielle Persley. The proceedings of that conference became the first book published by the library. As Gabrielle says,

“It’s not every day you get to say, ‘Oh yes, I produced the first book of the new Library of Alexandria, 16 centuries after the previous one was burnt down’. It gives you a bit of perspective on the work we do.”

Gabrielle, like many of her generation, was the first in her family to go to university. When she was in primary school her father used to drive her and her two brothers around the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus and say, “I wasn’t able to go to university but it’s my fondest wish that you three will” (and all three siblings did).

Later, it was often said in her family that the only photograph in which her father could be seen smiling was taken on the night in 1980 when she received her PhD in microbiology from the University of Queensland.

Gabrielle with her parents, Mary Kathleen and Joseph Persley, at the University of Queensland, 1980, on the night of Gabrielle’s PhD graduation.

From plant pathology to public service

Gabrielle was working as a plant pathologist in the Queensland sugar industry when she developed an interest in international agricultural development and embarked on her PhD. She imagined she would do her fieldwork somewhere in Asia but a chance opening took her instead to Nigeria, where she developed a thesis on the epidemiology of cassava bacterial blight across Africa. She returned to Brisbane in 1979 to write it up at the University of Queensland.

At this point, PhD under belt, she might have been expected to continue her career as a researcher in academia or the private sector. Instead, she moved to Canberra and joined what was then the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB) as a graduate recruit. Her decision had been taken in Africa.

“While I was there I came to the conclusion that if you wanted to influence what happened in international development and the role of science in development, it was actually better to work for an aid agency that made the decisions on funding for science and technology than to continue doing field and laboratory work. So I went from being a scientist in the field in Australia and then in Africa to coming to Canberra as a very young bureaucrat. I’ve never regretted that decision.”

When she turned up for work at AIDAB, she was told she would be working in the South Pacific section. The then-officer for regional programs in the South Pacific happily handed her the files on current projects in education, science and technology. He was retiring the same week and these projects would be hers.

She enjoyed her time on the South Pacific regional desk, and worked again with Pacific island countries later in her career, but her unique mix of skills soon caused her to be snaffled for an emerging line of work elsewhere in the building.

Gabrielle with Dr M S Swaminathan (one of the fathers of the “Green Revolution” in Asia), who was a friend of Sir John Crawford and a keen supporter of the establishment of ACIAR by the Australian Government.

Birth of an institution

When Gabrielle joined AIDAB, it was equipped with a small science and technology unit headed by Denis Blight, who, among other things, went on to lead the Crawford Fund for a decade to 2017. Its Director General was James Ingram, who was soon to be appointed head of the UN World Food Programme. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was due to host a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Melbourne in October 1981 and, as usual, wanted an initiative to announce.

The idea of creating an institution to support international agricultural research had been in the pipeline for a while. It had been discussed in Australian aid circles, and with CSIRO and the universities, over several years through a group headed by Sir John Crawford — the Consultative Committee on Research for Development. It had bipartisan political support, particularly from the Australian Labor Party’s John Button who became minister with responsibility for industry, technology and commerce following the 1983 change of government.

So CHOGM represented a political opportunity to give life to a well developed idea—an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Since Gabrielle happened to be the only agricultural scientist in the building where AIDAB was then housed, Ingram got her on the case. She worked with Crawford, Ingram, Blight, John Baker, John Kelly and Rodney Hills to get everything in place for the announcement, most notably the draft legislation that became the ACIAR Act, in quick time. The time that elapsed from the passage of the ACIAR Act to the board’s signing off on a first portfolio of projects was less than six months.

Gabrielle and her colleagues were able to work at such a clip partly because the ground had already been well prepared, but also because Crawford was operating with a characteristically clear view of his intended destination and the pathway to it.

“One thing I learned working with Sir John Crawford at that time was that he always had a very clear vision of what he wanted to happen and how he was going to make it happen. The vision, if you like, of the founding fathers and mothers was, ‘this was to be a centre that would establish partnerships between Australian researchers and their partners in developing countries to focus on problems in agriculture which were common to Australia and the partner countries.’”

This vision represented a conscious departure from the way in which Australia had previously supported agricultural research. The default approach was to set up contractor-managed technical assistance projects in partner countries which used packaged expertise from the research and agricultural development community. ACIAR’s approach was to nurture partnerships in order to solve common problems. It mobilised the expertise residing within CSIRO, state departments of agriculture and the universities and created a flow of people back and forth between Australia and partner countries.

Having been instrumental in setting up the organisation, Gabrielle became ACIAR’s first scientific staff member. (Crawford became the first chair of its board.) She was there a further eight years and, among other things, again worked with Pacific island countries as Pacific research coordinator. Even after she moved on to other things in 1990, she was never too far from ACIAR’s orbit. Most recently, she was involved in a major review of ACIAR in 2013. Then, very shortly before this profile was prepared, she was invited by Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs to join the ACIAR Commission, which functions as a high-level advisory body for the minister in relation to the work of the organisation.

“When I received the invitation to become a member of the Commission, that was one of those falling-off-the-chair moments where you think, ‘That’s an interesting cycle of life that rolled out in front of you.’ So yes, I must admit I’m really pleased about that.”

[aesop_video align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”F-Dl6uRZsxc” caption=”Gabrielle Persley interviewed on food security by the ABC, 2012.” disable_for_mobile=”on” loop=”off” autoplay=”off” controls=”off” viewstart=”off” viewend=”off” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Gabrielle and Jack

Gabrielle is one-half of an agricultural research power couple. She and Jack Doyle, a Scottish veterinary surgeon and scientist from Glasgow, had worked together as colleagues for many years from the early 1980s. Among other things, Jack served as one of the original staff, then Director of Research, then Deputy Director-General, of the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD) in Nairobi over the two decades to 1994. He was an international authority on trypanosomiasis.

ILRAD was folded into the new International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in 1994. Jack helped to make that happen and, when it was done, moved to Washington in 1995 to take up a job at the World Bank. It was in this period, when Gabrielle was working with Serageldin at the Bank, that Gabrielle and Jack’s longstanding professional relationship developed into a personal one. They were married in 1996.

Gabrielle and Jack.

Only three years later, in June 1999, Jack died of cancer at the age of just 55. Gabrielle established the Doyle Foundation in his name as a Scottish charity. The foundation aims to advocate and provide support for the role of science in international development. It manages a small program of fellowships to support early-stage career scientists but, as the charity has evolved over time, Gabrielle has found that perhaps its most useful contributions are achieved through its convening role.

“A lot of its value consists in having a small foundation that can convene people sometimes of differing views who are not quite sure if they want work together, holding fairly free-flowing meetings quite often in the Scottish highlands or interesting places, taking people out of their institutional homes and just saying, ‘We’ve got this idea. Do you think this might evolve?’, etc.”

Gabrielle takes particular pride in one initiative supported by the Doyle Foundation, namely the creation of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub. The BecA Hub is a shared research platform hosted by ILRI in Nairobi. The incoming Director-General in 2002, Carlos Seré, had inherited a set of laboratories from what had been Jack’s old organisation, ILRAD. These had been established in 1978 but biosciences had moved on quite a bit since that time. They needed a major refurbishment.

Seré realised that to refurbish the labs for livestock research alone was going to be very difficult. Gabrielle happened to be in Nairobi in early 2002 as a Board member of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and, when she sent Seré a message of congratulations on his appointment, he asked her in for a talk. He had the idea that perhaps he could share the laboratories, suitably modernised, with the African agricultural research community, both the universities and the national research institutions. He didn’t feel, though, as ILRI’s DG that he could go around suggesting this, as it might seem a little self-serving.

Gabrielle had fairly recently established the Doyle Foundation. Seré proposed that if she, with her Doyle Foundation hat on, were to do the rounds and speak with donors and governments as a more neutral actor, but also as a person who had spent a lot of time working in science and technology in Africa, it might be feasible to gain support for the idea. She did that, together with Romano Kiome, the then-head of agricultural research in Kenya, and other colleagues from the African scientific community, ILRI and Canada. Canada came to the table with substantial funding for infrastructure. The BecA Hub was opened by the President of Kenya at the end of 2010. Gabrielle considers that her proudest professional moment.

“That gleam in the eye to develop a first-class laboratory facility for African scientists to work on African problems in Africa, that idea had started in 2002 and this was December 2010. Basically this had been almost a decade of extremely hard work involving a whole team of people including myself to make that happen. So that really felt like both an end and a beginning. I have to say, if I think back, that that was a pretty good day.”

Gabrielle Persley and Rodney Cooke at ILRI’s two-day 40-year anniversary conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 7 November 2014 (ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

More recently, the Doyle Foundation also played an important role in the genesis of the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health, a partnership between the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and ILRI, with nodes in Edinburgh and Nairobi. The Centre, which was established in 2014 and attracted funding of USD16 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2015 and GBP 4 million from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in 2017, uses new, high end genomic technologies to identify the genetic basis for improving productivity, adaptation and disease tolerance in livestock species in the tropics.

Part of the Centre’s purpose is to use new genomics tools to do a better job of predicting and controlling zoonotic diseases before they explode into human epidemics. This, the interface between diseases of animals and humans, was the topic of the Doyle Foundation’s most recent annual workshop in October 2017, which focused on what can be done to ensure better and earlier control of zoonotic diseases.

The thesis behind this is it would be a good idea to make more use of animals as sentinels of human diseases. At the moment humans are acting as sentinels of animal diseases. Sometimes it seems nothing much is done about control until people start to die. This is too late. Once a disease like Ebola virus disease gets out of control in a human population, it’s almost impossible to bring the epidemic under control and it can cost thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars in economic losses.”

[aesop_video align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”8sawxC1OreU” caption=”Gabrielle Persley in conversation with Mizeck Chagunda (Scotland’s Rural College) about his involvement in the African Dairy Genetic Gains project and the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health.” disable_for_mobile=”off” loop=”off” autoplay=”off” controls=”off” viewstart=”off” viewend=”off” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Border crossings

As she enters into this new work at the intersection of human and animal health, Gabrielle is more conscious than most of the difficulties of working across the boundaries of professional disciplines. Even in the area of livestock research, it is hard enough to bring together those working at the molecular level in laboratories and those working on developing and delivering improved breeds of animals to livestock keepers, or those working on population-level disease surveillance and control in the field.

Working near and across such boundaries is obviously nothing new for Gabrielle. She jumped the fence between academia and the public service. She defined and then migrated across the boundary between a generic aid agency and a specialised statutory research authority. She further migrated into the complex galaxy of multilateral institutions involved in agricultural research and development, working at the World Bank in Washington, the International Service for National Agricultural Research in The Hague, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, the International Council for Science in Paris, and ILRI.

ILRI’s Gabrielle Persley being interviewed by Australian journalist Kate Sieper at the ‘John Vercoe Conference on Animal Breeding for Poverty Reduction’, held in Nairobi in 2007. (Photo: ILRI/Susan MacMillan)

As if that weren’t enough, Gabrielle has also traversed the boundary between the public and the private sectors, working with private actors such as the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) in Switzerland. She is sceptical about much of the enthusiasm for public-private partnerships in development, having witnessed more rhetoric than reality. As she says, ‘it doesn’t work in general, it only works in the particular’. But that hasn’t stopped her looking for specific and useful things to do in partnership with private actors.

For several years Gabrielle has been working with SFSA, ACIAR, the Crawford Fund and the University of Queensland Global Change Institute on a demand-led plant breeding project. The question is how to mobilise private sector expertise in the breeding of new crops so as to design food-security crops in Africa that actually meet market demand and therefore increase the level of adoption.

“A study was done a few years ago which showed that the average adoption of new varieties of food-security crops in Africa was about 35%, contrasted with about 60% in Asia and about 80% in Latin America. One might think that there are factors there about access to credit and seeds, etc. But maybe part of the answer is also that the new varieties coming from largely public-sector breeding programs, while they might be higher-yield or more drought-tolerant, are not actually what the farmers and the consumers want.”

Private-sector breeding companies have reason to know a lot about this because if they can’t sell the seeds then they don’t have a business. Gabrielle’s work in this this area with SFSA and a group of African educators culminated in a new book, The Business of Plant Breeding — market-led approaches for plant variety design in Africa, which was launched in Brisbane during the November 2017 tropical agriculture conference. The work doesn’t stop with the book though; Gabrielle and colleagues are now moving on to a second phase of work on specific crops in specific countries to implement the principles of demand-led plant breeding.

Gabrielle (3rd left) and collaborators at the book launch of ‘The Business of Plant Breeding’ at TropAg in Brisbane on 20 November, 2017.

Perhaps the most impenetrable or at least inscrutable boundary is that between researchers and potential sources of funding. Here, despite the shrinking or unpredictability of various countries’ aid budgets, Gabrielle is not at all despondent.

One thing that I actually learned from working with Jack Doyle for many years, he and I always used to say, ‘Look. If you’ve got a good idea and if you’ve got the right people, you can get it funded.’

In her years working for the Australian government, the World Bank and ILRI, and more recently through financing partnerships with the Canadian government (which funded the BecA Hub to the tune of about USD30 million), the Swedish government (which supports BecA) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gabrielle has generally found it is possible to obtain resources for good ideas.

“The challenge is to get the right idea and to be able to put the right teams of people together in both the OECD countries and the partner countries in Africa, Asia or the Pacific that can actually make it work, actually apply science to the solution of a particular problem. If you can get the design right, a critical factor is also to be able to find the right partner within the donor community who has the insights and understanding willing to support the applications of science, particularly with sustainable support.”

Gabrielle speaking at a meeting on the topic of “Scientific and Technical Partnerships in Africa: Technologies, Platforms and Partnerships in support of the African agricultural science agenda”, 4-5 April 2017, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Gabrielle believes that Australia has always been, and remains, as a source of under-tapped good ideas. Australia is one of the few OECD countries that has a substantial proportion of its land area in tropical and subtropical environments. It has a long tradition of agricultural research going back to the formation of CSIRO, it has some of the best agricultural scientists in the world, and it has a practical approach to solving problems. In addition, Australia has a strong university sector which can play a role not only in educating foreign students but also in partnering with universities in the region to strengthen curricula, develop teaching and engage in collaborative research. Gabrielle also sees potential for the resources and the know-how within Australia’s private agricultural sector to be mobilised for the benefit of developing countries, and for mutual benefits to Australia.

Gabrielle still travels incessantly, spending much of her life in Africa, Scotland and elsewhere, but has in recent years been more Australia-focused through her work as Research Study Director with the Crawford Fund and as an Adjunct Professor at the Global Change Institute at her alma mater, the University of Queensland. She has begun to attract some of the recognition that is due to her. Beyond her new role on the ACIAR Commission, she received a University of Queensland Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in 2014 and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2010 for her services to international science in development and livestock health in Africa.

It seems unlikely that these honours will weigh her down. She continues to support the operation and renewal of the various institutions she has helped to develop or create, evidently believing instinctively in the importance of purposeful institutions for building long-term partnerships and achieving impact. She speaks with enthusiasm about her new work at the intersection of human and animal health. As so many times before, she seems to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

Robin Davies was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre, ANU.