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International agricultural development research is set to receive a major boost with the announcement that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will formally join the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The foundation signalled its intention to take part in reforming the CGIAR system and increase its funding to the group at a CGIAR business meeting in Washington DC this week (8 December), taking many delegates by surprise. The foundation currently has an observer status.

The CGIAR reforms, under discussion since early 2008, will merge the group's 15 research centres  into a consortium that can take on broader cross-continental projects known as "mega-programmes" (see A revolution to combat world hunger). Donor funding previously allocated to individual centres will form a CGIAR Common Fund.

In a statement to the meeting Prabhu Pingali, head of agricultural policy and statistics at the Gates Foundation said: "There are several details around programmatic focus, funding details and membership issues that need to be worked out, but we believe these issues can be resolved in a mutually agreeable manner". The nature of the foundation's involvement is still under discussion.

"The end result of the reform ought to be a CGIAR system that can once again attract the 'best and the brightest' scientists to devote their careers to the cause of improving developing country agriculture," said Pingali.

More specifically, the foundation backed the controversial mega-programme approach and called for mega-programmes on rice and wheat, as well as a focus on gender issues across such programmes.

The Gates Foundation's decision is being seen as an endorsement of the reform process.

Sources said that in recent weeks the individual centres had joined forces to back the consortium approach. This was seen as a major breakthrough, as the possible reluctance of certain centres —such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and CIMMYT, the international maize improvement centre — to give up their cherished autonomy had been seen as a sticking point.

The extent of the sovereignty of each centre still has to be worked out.

"If you put 15 puppies in a sack, you are going to get a lot of wriggling," said Andrew Bennett, who is closely involved in the reforms as chair of the board of CGIAR's Centre for International Forestry Research.

The foundation's involvement could also provide a welcome boost to the consortium's coffers. Expectations for the Common Fund were being scaled back and donor pledging postponed to early next year. Some donors, including Sweden, had already announced cuts in their CGIAR support due to the global recession.

Sources at the Washington meeting said the Gates Foundation's statement of commitment would set a standard as it is the first donor to commit to the Common Fund, thereby stamping approval on the idea of the CGIAR in its new form.

The current budget of the 15 institutes is around US$530 million and the target had been to double funding through the Common Fund to around US$1 billion within five years.

The Gates Foundation is a significant international donor and already allocated US$400 million to several CGIAR centres over 2009–13.

Pingali said funding to CGIAR "could rise as we receive additional proposals during this five-year period". He urged donors to avoid a funding gap that could lose CGIAR high-quality staff.

 Andrew Bennett is the chair of SciDev.Net's board of trustees.