Ξ April 25th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine & Politics |
Dr. Ron S. Jackson. Who among wine science writers, oenologists and viticulturalists do not turn to his work for assistance, remedy, and for study? A standard textbook for the wine industry, for students and professionals alike, Wine Science, Principles, Practice, Perception, now in its 3rd edition, is the distillation of a disciplined life’s work. Whenever confronted with a technical issue requiring rigorous, thoroughly vetted research, it is to his book that I turn.
Professor Jackson may be retired, but the word means different things to different people. During the course of my conversation with him, to be presented in three parts, I was to learn that the life of the mind knows no retirement. Viticulture, Oenology, and Microbiology are ongoing explorations for him. Wine science is woven into his very character. Indeed, as the reader will discover, Professor Jackson continues to work on multiple intellectually demanding tasks.
A brief note on Dr. Jackson’s academic history: He gained his doctorate from the University of Toronto. Formerly associated with Brandon University where he developed Canada’s fist wine technology course, he is now a part of Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University.
Part 1 of the interview concentrates on biography and what might be called the politics of wine science, the often counterproductive struggle between theoretical and practical research programs for research money. No stranger to academic battles, he offers helpful insight into this predicament.
In part 2 we will turn to topics specific to microbiology.
Admin Good afternoon, Professor Jackson.
Ron Jackson You’ve called right on time.
Yes. Although justly famous for your books, not many folks know of you’re background. If you don’t mind, could you give us a sketch of how it is you came to microbiology, oenology and viticulture?
RJ Oh, gosh! Of course. There was a professor with whom I had a great degree of compatibility. He happened to be a plant pathologist, and he also liked Horticulture; that was my primary interest at the time. When it came time to look for research projects, and since we got along really well, I initially worked on a disease of Cattleya orchids. I then basically moved into diseases caused by Botrytis. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed it, and found it so inspiring that I decided to stay in plant pathology for the next ten or so years until I took my first sabbatical, which was at Cornell. While there, because of the wine associated aspects of that particular region, I took a course with Bob Pool on Viticulture, and I took other wine-related courses just for the fun of it. Because what I was really there to do was to study the genetics of Botrytis, one of the important pathogens of grapevines.
But on sabbatical you tend to have more free time than you do when you have your normal teaching load. So I thought, gee whiz, I could just have some fun and take some courses to learn a bit more about the wine side of things. I found that it became even more interesting than the pathology side of things. When I went back to the university some people I met thought it would be nice to have a wine appreciation course, and I thought maybe a wine technology course would be even more intriguing to me. And my work on the genetics of Botrytis had been having some problems…
Problems in what respect?
RJ (laughs) O.K. Technical problems. The organism is not an easy one to work with. If you’re a really smart scientist then you choose an organism that will answer the questions you want. I was more interested in the organism, having it tell me what it could about itself. But it is a really obnoxious organism to try and work with as far as its genetics. With the technical problems, two years’ work, all the Botrytis died. Two years of work all gone up in smoke, of no value. I got kind of frustrated. The university is breathing down your neck, asking ‘Where are all those nice research papers you’re supposed to be pumping out’? Well, my organisms are dead. And they say, ‘Well, that doesn’t count!’ (laughs)
So when I was reading up on wine-related things, I realized that Amerine’s book, which was my bible at the time, simply didn’t talk about certain things that for me, from my background, I found particularly interesting; like cork and oak, things of that nature. He didn’t talk about that. Neither did other authors. I started to realize that there were lots of things that were not being mentioned. Amerine was getting on in years. Another edition didn’t come out. Nobody else seemed to be putting anything out. I came to the conclusion that if I were to get my act together in time, I can get my book out before anybody else does, filling the niche of a new scientific text before anybody else! I was lucky.
I then did the same thing with wine tasting. After all, I had been working with the Manitoba Liquor Commission on training and testing their tasters. So if I could get my book out before Ann Noble does, maybe I can scoop that one too! (laughs) It’s in essence seeing a niche, a good ecological term, seeing a niche… nobody’s there… if you get in first you can establish yourself.
Funnily enough, that is the same thing Professor Gregory Jones told me about his research on climate change and viticulture. He looked around and found that there was an opportunity.
RJ That’s right. Find out what it is nobody else is doing and get in fast! You become the person. There’s no competition, well, ok, later. Then, of course, everyone has to try and up one on you. That tends to be even more difficult.
Yes. Now, I know that in Anthropology and Philosophy, subjects I studied in the university for some time, there is a great deal of competition within those departments. As you know, it is cold-blooded and heartless! Is it the same thing in wine science research?
RJ I’d have to say yes. People are people. There are only a limited amount of resources and money. You want to get the maximum for you. That means getting the maximum number of students; they can put out more research which means you can get more money. That is the direction the universities are going in these days. Researchers who get more money are very highly regarded. You can put out the best research, but if you don’t get a big research grant, well, that’s not so good. It’s not your repute or the quality of your research so much as it is how much money can you bring in to the university. What fancy equipment can you get? That’s the name of the game. It’s not necessarily what it should be, but that’s the way it is.
And there’s so much competition from the private sector as well. But I suppose the bottom line is the quality of the science…
RJ And popular. And current. As soon as a new technique comes out, everybody jumps in. Take DNA studies. Now everybody has to do a DNA study. (laughs) If you’re not doing a DNA study, then what are you doing? Are you slacking? Fooling around? Just reading newspapers? What? (laughs) I’ve been in the system sufficiently long to see trends. When I was coming in, electron microscopy was the thing. Everybody had to do studies in electron microscopy. Well, now electron microscopy is kind of old hat. DNA studies are now the thing. And gas chromatography was once the thing. Everybody had to be into that. That’s where the money is. I know it is not the way it should be, but we do not live in an ideal world. If you want to survive then you have to play by the rules.
It’s interesting. I spoke recently with Richard Smart who is also associated with your university, the Cool Climate Institute at Brock. He faulted the dependance of viticultural departments, UC Davis, etc., on genetics and the obsession with DNA when perfectly simple remedies for cool climate viticultural adaptation to climate change already exist. Plant breeding, for example. How do you balance the sexy, high prestige technology with simpler, more basic approaches to agriculture?
RJ What I’d like, in a sense, is the system that runs in Australia.
The mix of private and public.
RJ That’s right. There is a certain amount of money that comes off the sales of wines from wineries that goes to fund research. And, of course, those people are interested in really practical research.
Something like smoke taint.
RJ Exactly right. That affects our bottom line, how much money we get for our product. ‘We have a problem. Tell us what to do.’ Now that is really practical research. I love the really practical stuff. But it is not the sort of research that’s going to look great on your C.V. Because it’s practical, not theoretical. It’s not DNA. It depends on where the money comes from. If it comes from industry, like the wineries, then they will want practical research. They will put a stamp on where the money goes. But if the monies come from governments, and other researchers are the ones who tend to look at it, then they’ll be looking at it more from an academic point of view. So they will tend to shy away from the practical side and look at the theoretical side. Where the money comes from will therefore influence whether you get the grant or not.
What if the money comes from Bayer or Syngenta?
RJ Well, they’ll probably, if you’re not doing DNA genome studies, look elsewhere. You won’t get any money. Flat and simple. It’s not going to them any good. So, really, where the money comes from forces results of significance to them. If genetic engineering is where they make their money, then they want studies that relate to that. If your having problems with diseases in your vineyard, then you want the research to relate to that. It is natural that it will be that way.
Yes. So, getting back to your biography, eventually you have a textbook published. A standard. In light of constant and perpetual breakthroughs in the associated sciences, how is such a textbook updated and maintained?
RJ With constant study. There is no break. You must be looking everyday at the latest information coming out. Get the technical papers, put them away in the files, and when it comes time you simply look at all the old stuff, all the new stuff, try to integrate it all and update. It takes about 4 to 5 years for a new edition. You do not stop.
The amount of research is increasing constantly; that makes it even harder, but also more interesting. With data bases and access to data bases, you have your fingers going out into more research journals than was ever possible before. I’m finding interesting research in places I never would have even thought of looking. A journal on nuclear magnetic resonance imaging is not where I’m going to normally look for something on wine. But occasionally there is something fascinating that comes out of there. And without the data base I would have to be within a huge university and spend all my time looking at every journal, and doing almost nothing else, to try and find this stuff. The data bases help to locate diverse materials of significance to mention in the updated book.
Do you ever come across any difficulties with accessing proprietary scientific information, the work product of private companies? With privatization comes copyright, secrecy…. Has that ever proved to be a barrier to advancing your kind of research?
RJ No, because there are not really major industry players, like the genetic engineering people. That is not, at the moment, an important thing in grapevines or yeast studies. There is a bit of it, but there is such a backlash against it that little is actually being advanced at the moment in that regard. There is academic research looking into it, but on the practical side of it, it is very, very limited. Ok, fungicides… when it becomes available on the market then it becomes of interest to me. What they are doing in their research labs does not really effect what I am going to write. Because that is what might be.
You want real world results.
RJ That’s right.
END OF PT 1