Since the creation of the Independent Science for Development Council (ISDC) in 2019 as the renewed CGIAR science advisory body, the Council conducted its first retreat from 3 to 5 December 2019 near Rome, Italy. This retreat served as an induction and orientation to ISDC Members given its new membership composition, its new role and terms-of-reference, and the One CGIAR change process.

The entire meeting was characterized by a palpable sense of enthusiasm to embark on delivering actionable science advice to the CGIAR System at a time of transition and change; the retreat started off in this vein with self-introductions by all members in which they shared what drove and motivated them to contribute to the work of the ISDC, alongside their main research interests and professional pursuits. We are a small team with a very broad science background.   

As part of the orientation, ISDC Members received briefings from representatives of key entities of the CGIAR, including two other independent advisory services; these included the CGIAR System Organization, the CGIAR System Management Office, the System Council’s Strategic Impact, Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, the Standing Panel on Impact Assessment and the Evaluation Workstream of the CAS Secretariat. ISDC Members also reflected on the urgent need to engage with the broader CGIAR scientific community.

These conversations served not only to understand the roles and functions of the different CGIAR entities, but also to engage in insightful discussions on their relationship with ISDC, including how and where Council could add value through targeted science advice. This needs to involve listening to the CGIAR’s scientific community and understanding their capabilities and needs.

The retreat benefited greatly from the experience of a professional facilitator, who led retreat participants through brainstorming exercises in relation to stakeholder engagement, the CGIAR change process, and ISDC’s role, focus and operationalization modalities. Member’s inputs on these matters were later synthesized into succinct statements on ISDC’s perceived value proposition and understanding of success in delivering on its mandate. These statements read as follows:

  • Value proposition: The ISDC enables CGIAR’s mission by providing independent, timely and transparent advice on impactful science and partnerships.
  • Success: ISDC advice is valued by CGIAR and its stakeholders and drives a strategic research agenda that results in desired impacts.

Having created a shared understanding of ISDC’s mandate and a vision of success, ISDC Members undertook a series of in-depth discussions in smaller groups reflecting on ISDC’s roles and responsibilities. Members specifically reflected on the following four themes: (i) quality of science and methodological approaches; (ii) a quality of research-for-development (QoR4D) framework; (iii) prioritization and focus in the context of CGIAR comparative advantage; and (iv) collaborative science in transition.

As a key output of the retreat deliberations, and as part of the overall 2020 workplan that was developed during the retreat, four workpieces were identified that are to be undertaken in the next several months, constituting important ISDC contributions feeding into key CGIAR meetings in the first half of 2020.

These four workpieces are: (i) QoR4D reframe in the context of One CGIAR ; (ii) two foresight translational studies, bridging past work on foresight from the Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) and internal CGIAR work on foresight,  and aligning these with the five One CGIAR focal areas; (iii) collaborative partnership study; and (iv) trade-off analyses (building on translational studies). These will be accompanied by appropriate communication materials.

In a final feedback session at the end of the retreat, ISDC Members commented that the retreat had provided clarity on ISDC’s mandate, role and function, on the tasks prioritized in the short term, and on the level and nature of support to be expected from the CAS Secretariat. Members appreciated the quality of the facilitation of the retreat, as well as its organization and chairing.

Mandefro Nigussie, ISDC Member from Ethiopia, spoke on all participants’ behalf when remarking: “I am grateful to the team, to know each other and to see the diversity in terms of discipline and background. I am happy to be a member of this team. I can see a bright future, and together we can bring about change for CGIAR beneficiaries, whom we care about and ultimately serve.”

We also decided to meet again in the week starting 20 April in Ethiopia, where Mandefro will be hosting the ISDC. The location was a very deliberate choice, given the number of CGIAR centres that are represented there. It will give the ISDC an opportunity to interact with many of the CGIAR scientists based there, seeing their work in action and listening to their concerns.

On a personal note, I was really impressed with the “can do” attitude that all ISDC members displayed during the retreat and their commitment to the CGIAR. Everyone stepped up to make the meeting a great success. As I noted in my closing remarks at the retreat, “We all have the CGIAR System’s best interests at our heart; it is all a long process and we will make a strong contribution to the CGIAR’s future success, particularly during this period of transformational change.”