Chris Uggen's Blog: norman borlaug and academic butterflies

Thursday, July 19, 2007

norman borlaug and academic butterflies

norman borlaug received the congressional gold medal this week. the plant pathologist is best known for developing high-yield disease-resistant crops. he joins martin luther king jr., mother teresa, elie wiesel, and nelson mandela as the only people to have received this award, the nobel peace prize, and the presidential medal of freedom.

few scientists or humanitarians have had a bigger global impact in the past century. his work has its critics, though even critics generally credit professor borlaug with saving over a billion people from starvation. not a bad record of productivity, i'd say. while his c.v. and awards are impressive, however, he has never really pursued an academic career path.

the nobel bio describes doctor borlaug in this way:

"An eclectic, pragmatic, goal-oriented scientist, he accepts and discards methods or results in a constant search for more fruitful and effective ones, while at the same time avoiding the pursuit of what he calls "academic butterflies. "

if you're ever in my neighborhood, you can find a reproduction of professor borlaug's handwritten nobel acceptance speech on the minnversity's cooler-than-it-sounds wall of discovery. i was curious about said butterflies, so i dug a bit deeper. he uses the phrase in his 1970 nobel lecture, describing one of his major breakthrough periods in 1940s mexico:

"Research from the outset was production-oriented and restricted to that which was relevant to increasing wheat production. Researches in pursuit of irrelevant academic butterflies [emphasis added] were discouraged, both because of the acute shortage of scientific manpower and because of the need to have data and materials available as soon as possible for use in the production program."

ouch, say the academics. but i've gotta admire the urgency and seriousness with which he approaches his work -- this stuff is just too damn important to worry about "framing" or which potholes that a particular finding might fill in the academic literature. isn't sociological and criminological work of equal importance? shouldn't we focus a bit more on gathering the data and materials needed to produce positive change in the world? professor borlaug goes on to describe his bold dreams and his disillusionment with the academic priorities of the day:

"In my dream I see green, vigorous, high-yielding fields of wheat, rice, maize, sorghums, and millets, which are obtaining, free of expense, 100 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare from nodule-forming, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These mutant strains of Rhizobium cerealis were developed in 1990 by a massive mutation breeding program with strains of Rhizobium sp. obtained from roots of legumes and other nodule-bearing plants. This scientific discovery has revolutionized agricultural production for the hundreds of millions of humble farmers throughout the world; for they now receive much of the needed fertilizer for their crops directly from these little wondrous microbes that are taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it without cost in the roots of cereals, from which it is transformed into grain...

Then I wake up and become disillusioned to find that mutation genetics programs are still engaged mostly in such minutiae as putting beards on wheat plants and taking off the hairs [emphasis added].

yeesh. i love my work, but sometimes i feel like a dorky kid chasing butterflies around my well-appointed office. and when i catch them, i suppose, i'll paste little beards on them and submit them electronically for judgment by the scholar-squirrels of academe.

norman borlaug demonstrates the virtues of clear priorities and a commitment to doing research that matters, telling us to dream big and to go hard. that's such an inspiring vision that i may even share his story with my lad tonight. oh yeah, forgot to mention it -- dr. borlaug was also a heavyweight wrestler at the minnversity (back when heavyweights were about half tor's size) and a member of the national collegiate wrestling hall of fame. neither martin luther king jr., nor mother teresa, nor elie wiesel, nor nelson mandela can claim that honor.


At 10:45 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

Add to the list that he's probably the most famous graduate of the now defunct General College--meaning he didn't initially meet the university's regular admission requirements.

In food circles, the green revolution (which Borlaug was a part of) definitely has its critics. There's some long term concern about the sustainability and ecological effects of the crops this movement came up with. Yet it's also hard to argue the some food, however problematic, is better than no food.

At 11:35 PM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

didn't know that about GC, jerry, but it certainly adds to the story.

i read a bit from his critics, but should probably consult with my colleague rachel schurman on this issue before i shoot my mouth off again.

the sustainability critique took me back to something i heard from erik wright back in grad school: you can critique the long-term implications of any policy, but you should remember that people must eat in the short-term.

At 8:20 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

Yeah, I do think the short term benefits are hard to ignore. The long term issues related to biodiversity are mainly hypothetical at this point, so they don't have much weight. Perhaps the more disturbing issue is how genetic engineering has resulted in some crops being patented, meaning that small farmers can no longer simply save seeds from this year's crop for next years. They must always buy them from the seed producer. While those crops do permit higher yields, then, they also come at a greater cost. It's similar in some ways to the dynamic of new pharmaceuticals in poor countries. They save lives, but cost more money and thus exacerbate existing poverty issues.

I can't say I'm an expert in this area either, though. But I think it does point out that even work like Borlaug's has its problematic points. I'd only hope for 1% of such a legacy.


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