Jeff Waage

Jeff is a Professor of International Development. Recently retired, he previously held appointments as Director of the London International Development Centre (LIDC) and Chair of the London Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH).

*This series of ANH Academy career journeys were taken from real interviews, carried out by Lauren McIntyre, IMMANA Research Uptake Manager.

Tell us about your background. Where, when, and what did you study at university for your undergraduate and graduate studies?

I've been in a career for a long time, since about 1975, and I started as an ecologist interested in ecosystems. Following my PhD, I decided to move into agricultural ecology and I spent most of my career working in agricultural science in developing countries. Part of that was through jobs at the University of London, and part of it was working for an organisation called the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau, where I managed agricultural research projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

What did you specialise in?

The area I specialised in was the management of pests and diseases in agriculture, and particularly finding ecological ways to do that to avoid the use of chemicals. My work focused on low- and middle-income countries where pesticide use can be problematic. Training about their safe uses is limited and therefore, you tend to have more problems with ecological disruption and human health problems such as pesticide poisoning. This specialism got me initially interested in health and agriculture, but it wasn't really about nutrition back then.

When did you start working in agriculture, nutrition and health?

I came to the idea of working in agriculture, nutrition and health quite late in my career, when I took on the Director role at the London International Development Centre (LIDC). I organised a program across several colleges in the University of London, including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Royal Veterinary College and the School of Oriental and African Studies. The role at LIDC started in 2007, and we were working in all kinds of interdisciplinary areas relating to development, but the one that emerged which was particularly interesting to me because of my agricultural background was agriculture, nutrition and health. From initial discussions, we developed a plan for a new, interdisciplinary programme. We were awarded a large grant to establish the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH), to bring together agriculture and public health researchers, and to link up the colleges in an interdisciplinary way. This led to many, many more projects, including IMMANA.

What changes do you predict in your field of work in the next 5 years?

The history of the field is quite interesting, because it started out with a lack of dialogue between the agriculture and public health communities. The agriculture community thought they were doing really healthy things by producing more food, particularly staple cereals, because people need calories. But the health community had a view that agriculture was maybe not such a great thing because they use chemicals and because unhealthy foods were also being produced, such as highly processed foods. There wasn't a lot of dialogue that was positive between these two groups. Over the last 12 years that's changed enormously. The field of agriculture, nutrition and health has grown, and there’s much more of a focus on the big changes that have happened and a shift to thinking about food systems as a whole. Not about producing crops, not about the health endpoint, but about the process in the middle where people actually come in contact with different kinds of foods coming from agriculture and how this influences health. That's a really important step and I think the future is clearly going to be bringing environmental issues into that. We know that agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and to the degradation of the habitats, leading to the biodiversity crises and the water crises that we have today. There's got to be an environmental component to agriculture, nutrition and health, and we see that happening in our programs and in the London colleges and I think that's a huge future area for development.

What's most satisfying aspect of ANH work?

Being constantly surprised by how differently things look from another discipline’s perspective. I just think it's so interesting. For instance, coming to this as an agricultural scientist and helping to build links with nutrition and health, I thought, okay, there are two sides to this – agriculture and health, including nutrition. Then I discovered that health and nutrition were two different research communities that don’t talk. I thought it was one big happy family but it's many different families who don't talk enough. The big discovery is that people are really isolated in these silos. In agriculture, nutrition and health you're constantly discovering these barriers. It's always a surprise and a delight when you can break them down.

Who or what inspires you at the moment?

One thing which inspires me is how people are making really successful careers in the disciplines around agriculture, nutrition and health. It’s just amazing to compared to what it was 10 or 20 years ago, when you were sort of weird if you thought of doing this kind of stuff. I think the real inspiring thing is the new thinking about the environmental dimensions of agriculture, nutrition and health. For example, the ecological and environmental consequences of the diets that we eat. Some of the work I've seen coming from researchers in ANH academy in particular. They might look at the carbon footprint, or work that that reveals how much rainforest has been cut down to produce the hamburger that you're eating. More specific and inspiring is what do you do about that; how do you actually turn that into some kind of policy behavioural change? I find that the most interesting thing because I'm a natural scientist, and wasn’t trained to think about people’s behaviour. Quantitative sciences have gained a tremendous respect for social science and the value of linking up the two.

If you did not have the job that you have now, what would you do and would it be ANH-related?

I would have been an art historian. My second love is history; the history of art and science. I did all right in that when I was an undergraduate. I actually got invited to give a talk at a history of science conference, and I met a very senior historian of science and there who said “nice talk, but I’d stick to biology and don't worry about the history”. I took his advice!

What were your career milestones, and when did they happen?

Before I got into agriculture, nutrition and health I worked on something really interesting. We developed a biological way of controlling locusts in Africa, which are big problem every 20 years. It's a natural fungus that you can apply directly to crops. Unfortunately, not many people use it today, but they should because it would prevent misuse of pesticides, and protect the fragile habitats where locust swarms build up, before they move into farms. Another milestone was when I took on the role at LIDC we had a bunch of scientists willing to give agriculture, nutrition and health research a try, including veterinarians and agricultural economists. It opened up a whole new field and new careers for researchers to build on. I think that was really a significant milestone or high point of my career. Thirdly, perhaps the thing I’m most proud of having contributed to is shifting northern academic activity into a global activity and involve colleagues in low- and middle-income countries, where the problems of agriculture, nutrition and health are most severe.

Was there a time where you had to learn a great deal in a short amount of time (a learning curve)?

When I started in this agriculture nutrition and health area, I really didn't know very much about nutrition and health. My role at the time was more about coordinating research, so my job was really about getting people around the table. What I learned was that it may not be a good idea to try to learn to be an interdisciplinary scientist or to become a jack of all trades knowing a little bit about everything. The people who were most able to work effectively in agriculture, nutrition and health were the ones who became disciplinary specialists in their area. They might be nutritionists, they might be agricultural economists, they might be agronomists. But their “interdisciplinarity” came when they developed an appreciation and understanding of the other disciplines. I learnt that it is important to be a specialist in your area and to learn enough so that you can engage with and have respect for specialists in other areas and what they can contribute.

Did you have any experience of rejection/failure in your career path? How did the experience affect you?

One of the things that I’m aware of is that you can generate some really good solutions to problems, but it's disappointing to find that people may not use them. The locust story I told you was a particularly good one. We have a fantastic cheap, effective non-chemical product, but it's not really being used today. That got me interested very much in policy. I guess the main failure I had for many years was not really appreciating that you don't do science for science’s sake. If you want to change things, you do science to inform people who are going to use that science and those are often policymakers. They might be a government agency that could take up the technology, they might be people in central government who make decisions about food systems and set regulations. One of the things that's really become come clear through my time in agriculture, nutrition, health is that you've really got to get their interests involved early in the project. We need to involve the people who are going to benefit from the research from the outset. When I didn't get that interested in who would pick up the science that I was generating, it was less likely to make a difference to the problem I wanted to help solve.

Do you have some advice for researchers and how to do that?

Think about who this research is for and have conversations with them. This is easier now that  our community now is a mixture of natural and social scientists doing quantitative and qualitative research. Social scientists often have a good understanding of policy making. If you're a nutritionist, get to know the people who are working on how governments make decisions about food, health or agriculture. If you're able to, find a situation where you can talk to those people. If you can build stakeholder engagement into the design of your proposals that would be even better. Then you know better what could happen with the research you generate, and that can help you to design it.

How do you manage stress at work and what advice would you give others?

It's very challenging. When I'm in particularly stressful situations I do a lot of mindfulness exercises. For instance, I always find giving talks at meetings really stressful. Every time it's still a tremendous challenge, so I try to do something relaxing beforehand. I also try to keep an attitude of “what's the worst thing that could happen?”. Agreeing to tasks when you don’t have the capacity can be stressful. I’ve always found that if you can't do something you planned to do, or if you're a bit overwhelmed, people will understand. Don't get too worried about having to please everyone, just be respectful and let people know.

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or clubs you are a member of?

Because I'm no longer a full-time academic, most of my hobbies are now my main activities! I am particularly passionate about natural history. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved nature. I would spend most of my time outdoors, birdwatching, identifying flowers, all sorts of things. Whenever I travelled for work, I would always find time to go to the garden behind the hotel in this or that tropical city and do a bit of birdwatching or looking for insects. People think of nature as wild nature, but I’m interested in the nature people experience in cities too; in built-up and degraded areas. Most people live around nature that doesn't look very good anymore, on the edge of a city or near a dump for example. I find it really challenging because we can make more enjoyable and help people appreciate and restore it. We have an area where I live in North London which is quite unusual, it's a bit of British countryside that's been protected for a couple hundred years, called Hampstead Heath. Unlike most parks that you'd know in London, it is actually wild habitat. It's under tremendous pressure, with 15 million visitors a year to a place that's really quite small. I volunteer there, doing nature conservation work. We recently finished mapping all the birds that live there to find out which ones are under threat. We're interested in looking at how climate change is going to affect the Heath. Working locally with civil society is something I do more now. I was privileged to travel a lot with work, to the Caribbean, West Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Nowadays you won't see me doing that because I don’t want to contribute to global warming through air travel.  

If you have children when in your career did you have them and how has being a parent affected/changed your work-life balance?

I have four kids, and I had them between the times I was 33 and 43. That was a bit tough because I was working internationally. I was taking intercontinental flights very often to the various offices of the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau. I didn't see them as much as I would have liked to. When each of them became 10 years old, I took them to one of the places I worked and we spent a week or two there. Making time for family is important, and I think I would have done more in retrospect. I'm so delighted to have them nearby now. You keep contributing to your family your whole life, so if you're really busy when they're very young, sometimes that's necessary. But make as much time as you can. I look at my kids and I think they have much more of a work-life balance than I did. Particularly at the moment, as a result of the pandemic and the need to stay near home. I hope a lot of people after this pandemic will value that more, and think about not going into a laboratory or office every day.

Have your family played a role in choosing your career path?

I come from a scientific and academic family. I was influenced by the fact that my brother was an ecologist and my father was a geologist, so that did guide me into my career in a way. I moved to England when I was 22 and never went home to the US again. I chose England because I really wanted to work in international development, in the tropics, which I was most interested in at the time. Back in the 70's, if you were interested in international research, you wouldn't choose to live in America. I came here to the UK and left my family roots in that regard.

What have you learned from role models in your life?

There are three or four people who have been great role models in my career. I met a few of them as an undergraduate and postgraduate and they just inspired me. Sir Bob May was an ecologist, who taught me at university in America. He later moved to England and told me that it was the place to go to do work in international development, so I followed him! Similarly, when I was a PhD student I was inspired by Prof Gordon Conway who created the concept of sustainable agriculture. I was really lucky to be surrounded by giants, and I think it's the few outstanding researchers you encounter who are interested enough in you that they give you a bit of time – they are really influential. I hope everybody gets the chance to have those kinds of people in their careers.

What have your experiences with mentoring involved?

Back in those days mentorship was wasn't really a concept, you mostly went for a walk or had a coffee with your students and discussed their fieldwork and research. I think mentorship really works best when a student or researcher gets involved in their mentor’s own work, and can observe how they approach it, I like the idea of being a mentor but I get a little bit embarrassed when I think that I've been important to somebody's career. But I suspect I have had that role, and I think it's great to be open when somebody comes to you for advice or they want to work with you in your laboratory. In my funny sort of way, I’ve always been more of a manager than a researcher. That's what really inspired us to develop LCIRAH. We did a lot of work on agriculture, nutrition, health for about five or six years and then we thought, okay, this is great, but we really need to build a community in this new area. Then the people who came in, some of whom are in the IMMANA program now, had a better idea than me how to do that. They were much closer to training and teaching and earlier in their careers; closer to PhD, masters and undergraduate students. The idea that we should really dedicate ourselves not only to scientific papers, but to bringing young researchers into this and  to helping people make that transition to interdisciplinary research. I think the extent that I got involved was in helping to set up the programs that did that, like IMMANA and the ANH Academy. The ANH Academy was probably the most exciting and successful thing I've ever been involved with, in terms of growing and generating activity.

What is one piece of advice you could give to someone beginning their career in your field?

Gosh, one piece of advice. Well, one of the things that we learned it in running LCIRAH, was that you can work across agriculture, nutrition and health, but you may need to do that by specializing in one of those. Often the things you have to do to keep your career developing are still rather disciplinary. You might be in the department of nutrition at a university. You might be at an institute of agricultural development and working for the government. Your career progression and success might be very much linked to one discipline in this sense. The benefit of working in agriculture, nutrition and health is that in many cases it's more interesting and rewarding than sticking in your discipline. You meet all different kinds of people and you can solve bigger problems that way. You can make sure that whatever you're doing in your own discipline, you're actually linking up with the other disciplines that are critical to your being successful. It's really fun to be part of that. I always used to say, that if we could get our members who are disciplinary specialists to do interdisciplinary research for 10% of the time, we would still generate a tremendous amount of exciting work. Those researchers would have their successful careers at their own institutions in their own disciplines, but they'd be contributing to something which is much bigger than the sum of those parts. So, chase interdisciplinary opportunities but make sure you do that from a sound academic or research platform in your own particular discipline.

Can you recommend something for people who need inspiration or information about a career in your field?

You know it's tricky, because I just point people to the ANH Academy. With its focus on young researchers, I can't think of anywhere better. I know that's a bit of a cop out, but I just don't have any other thoughts. There are some other groups to get involved in and you can access most of these through the ANH academy.


If you have any questions or feedback about this career journey, please contact l[email protected].