Roland Poss (France)
Age: 55 years
Position: Director of Research at IRD
IRD, SupAgro Bt 12, 2 place Viala, 34060 Montpellier cedex
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
I decided to study soil science when I was 20. I had an inclination for outdoor activities that had led me to study Agronomy when I was 18. In my first year in the Institut National Agronomique (Agro ParisTech today) I was fascinated by the soil science class of Jean Boulaine, an outstanding professor and keen historian of French soil science and agronomy. Unlike other professors, Jean Boulaine had organized his class around the projection of slides, which was most unusual at the time. This made soil science very lively and attractive. As a consequence I majored in Tropical Soil Science the next year.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
I cannot spot any particularly influential teacher. We had classes with many scientists specialised in Tropical Soil Science, most of them from ORSTOM (IRD today). Georges Aubert (an Honorary member of IUSS) gave an interminable class on pedogenesis that was the basis of our training, but I was not fascinated as I was already more interested in soil changes under present cultivation practices than in past changes. Georges Pedro (today Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Agriculture) impressed me by a very interesting and remarkably structured class on soil mineralogy. I became his best student ever, kept an interest in soil mineralogy, but did not work in this field afterwards.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
Well, let's try to answer this one! If I look back at my career, I reckon that the two driving forces were a commitment towards the agricultural development of the tropical countries were I worked (Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and Thailand) and the passion to unravel the processes at work in cultivated soils. Finally, what kept me going throughout the years was the idea that a better understanding of the functioning of the Tropical soils would make possible to manage them better and, hopefully, contribute to improve the well-being of the farmers of tropical regions in the long run. I realize today that I have largely underestimated the importance of the socio-economic parameters (both local and global) in rural development.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
In renewing the way soil science is taught. I am convinced that today students need to master different fields to adjust to the changes they will have to undergo in their career. Thus I reckon that soil science must be deliberately placed at the junction between different fields (chemistry, physics, microbiology) and that the student must be able to master enough of the different fields to address the many issues soil sciences is confronted with. One way to partially achieve this necessary link between fields and to trigger interest amongst students is to make them work on real situations.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
Unfortunately, I cannot predict the future! However, I do see a growing interest in soil science in the wake of the emerging environmental concerns. I believe that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has provided soil science with a very attractive framework. Today we can speak about soils by the many services they provide to the ecosystems and human societies. This renewed way of looking at soils makes anybody interested in our field. I believe that the days were we had strong soil science departments are gone forever. However, I reckon that the need for soil scientists in groups working on terrestrial ecosystems has never been so strong. I expect that in the future soil science will be split between many small units and that one of the issues will be to find the way to keep these many small units in touch.