23 October 2017

Buoyant in Buenos Aires: the IUNS Conference

Last week, several of the GAIN team were participating in the 2017 International Union of Nutrition Sciences (IUNS) meeting in Buenos Aires. There were thousands of participants from all over the world and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of presentations. Quite a lot of bench science, but also a lot of field and program research, and even some policy research.
All in all the GAIN team made 14 presentations and showcased 12 posters. I was really proud of all of them, but a special mention is reserved for Lynnette Neufeld, GAIN’s Director of Knowledge Leadership. Wonderfully, Lynnette was voted by the Council and country representatives as the new President Elect of the IUNS. This means she has four years to prepare for her tenure, which begins at the 2021 IUNS in Japan. This is an incredible honour, one that is bestowed on her by her peers and the full membership. I know she will do a great job and we will support her all the way.
So what did I make of the Conference?
Obviously I could not go to that many sessions (I gave a talk on nearly every day; there were lots of small group meetings I needed to attend, and many of the formal sessions I wanted to go to ran simultaneously) so, as usual, my views are impressionistic and partial. (And yes I would have made these observations and recommendations even if Lynnette were not the President Elect!)
1. The sessions could have been better aligned so that they aggregated up to answer big questions. There was, of course, some of this (and it must be like n-dimensional chess to get the alignment right), but I felt the presentations somehow did not build on each other enough. Half the world is malnourished, we need science to help find practical solutions, fast.
2. There weren’t enough young people presenting. There were lots of people in their 40s and 50s making great presentations, but I would have liked to have seen more mentoring of younger people. The presentations by our own Djeinam Toure and Corey Luthringer were two of the most interesting I heard. Look at dynamic sectors such as business and IT: they are brimming with young people and benefit accordingly.
3. There was not as much disciplinary diversity as I would have liked to see. I suppose this is the international union of “nutrition sciences” but the “how” is just as important as the what and why, and we need to reach out to other disciplines who are working on nutrition issues to understand these “how” issues better (e.g. the political scientists, the financial analysts, the institutional economists, the behavioural psychologists, the business administrators, the lawyers and the climate scientists). For example, there was not one presentation over the six days including the word “governance” or the phrase “public-private partnership”. Real world solutions desperately need to better link new evidence to stakeholders outside academe.
4. Everyone had to state whether they had a conflict of interest before their presentation, but in none of the sessions I attended did anyone have a conflict to declare. That struck me as odd. In the last of my five talks, I declared an interest. The talk was arguing for more independent evaluations of public-private partnerships in nutrition. This is clearly in GAIN’s interests because we want more independent evaluations to draw on. This will allow us to do better work and attract more resources, so we can have bigger impact. OK, it is not exactly Big Tobacco, but this class of conflict is worth declaring, it seems to me. This is not just about duties, it makes interventions more interesting and real.
But without a doubt the most fun event was the GAIN 15th birthday party organised by Bonnie McClafferty, our Director of Food Value Chains. Bonnie had organised a really interesting session earlier in the day on “Shaping Food Systems”, but the birthday party had better music and dancing.
We had the party because we wanted to thank the folks we asked to give us input into our new strategy, as well as our staff, partners and investors: past, present and future.  We had over a 100 people there and the positivity was fantastic. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate our contributions, standing shoulder to shoulder with our partners, over these past 15 years, and to mark the great year we have just had.
But the birthday party is merely the appetiser for the main course. To mark our 15th birthday a bit more seriously, in the next two months each of our 15 country offices will host a policy roundtable discussion on the future of food systems: in Abuja, Addis Ababa, Copenhagen, Dar es Salaam, Delhi, Dhaka, Geneva, Islamabad, Jakarta, Kabul, London, Maputo, Nairobi, Ottawa, Utrecht and Washington DC.
Watch out for them!

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