First off, let me say that I have plenty of other things to be doing today, but when I saw this report I could not let it go by without thinking about it some.
There is a new report out by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. You can read the report for yourself (and if you have any stake in agriculture I suggest you do) here:
Typically when something from the White House comes up these days, there are missives thrown out against “liberals” and “conservatives” and all that stuff. This post doesn’t have anything to do with party alliance. The first thing I did when I got the report is to see who wrote it — who is on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. What I found was of no real surprise, some of the highest ranking scientists in the country, but I also noticed that only member was from a Land-Grant Institution (you know, the institutions that do most of the agricultural science). The member, from the University of Maryland – College Park, is a Physicist, so not an agriculturist.
OK, I thought, perhaps they consulted scientists from Land-Grant Institutions and other agricultural enterprises. Under their Working Group, four Land-Grant individuals were named — one weed scientist, one agronomy geneticist, one air quality specialist, and a plant physiologist. Hmm, still slim pickings. I dug deeper and found an “Additional Experts Providing Input” section. A few more with Land-Grant ties here, but a disturbing trend (at least to me) formed — there were no scientists who work with specialty crops involved. I saw plenty of geneticists and other basic scientists but few, if any, who work in more applied fields.
The report states that “A vibrant U.S. agriculture enterprise is paramount to the future well-being of the Nation”, something we can all agree upon. Unfortunately, “Public funding of agricultural research, in real dollars, has remained at nearly the same level for the last 30 years”. This is not good. Would you like to continue to have the same pay as you did in 1982? In fact, “…private industry now outspends USDA in agricultural research by more than 3 to 1”. But of course most of that is in the large commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and rice.
Furthermore, the report goes on to say that, “…it is not clear that the current public investment is being optimally used, especially where some public investments overlap research topics supported by industry.” Yet, “In many cases, important benefits of agricultural research cannot be monetized, making them an unlikely focus for the private sector.” This is quite an obvious point — if a company cannot make money they will not spend money. Much of agricultural research does not fit that model (aside from things that can be patented — plants, technology) and therefore much of the work is left to public institutions. I applaud the idea of bringing together public and private enterprises for the good of agriculture; however, it cannot be done at the expense of other “non-commercial” work. It is a balancing act that can yield great benefits in some areas.
The Council points out many of the challenges of our current agriculture environment (drought, competition, pests, demand, etc.) and suggest that, “Successfully overcoming these challenges requires a U.S. agricultural research enterprise that harnesses the newest advances from across the physical and life sciences, builds on a broader public investment in science and technology, and then applies these discoveries to the specific challenges of agriculture.” Sounds great, right? Well, historically, the physical and life sciences have not interacted with agricultural sciences. Why? I could speculate, but I will leave you to your own conclusions (I certainly have some of my own). Making a statement that the disciplines should start interacting regularly is not as easy as it sounds. Not only could their be personality and cultural obstacles, but institutional as well. I also notices throughout the document many references to “basic research”. Yes, basic research is needed in agriculture — and we have some great people around the country doing this type of research but we need more. Can the bill be filled by physical and life scientists? Maybe, but only if they interact with agricultural scientists.
One thing that struck me while reading was a comment about Xyllela fastidiosa on winegrapes. You may know this better as Pierce’s Disease. The report says, “…there is no detailed knowledge of how the bacterial pathogen causes disease or how plants might resist it”. I would disagree with that. Unfortunate the they did not consult these sources: http://www.piercesdisease.org/ and http://www.piercesdisease.org/papers/. In fact, they cited a report from 2004 as the source of information. They probably should have asked someone working on PD to give them an update.
In the future we are going to deal with food shortages, if not in this country then the rest of the world and thus, “Increases in food production should also come from the development of nontraditional or newly domesticated crops, especially in marginal lands or in more temperature- or water-stressed conditions.” This type of research is, “…too basic and too far from direct product development, such as exploring and domesticating new food crops.” If you look at fruits like blackberries and blueberries, USDA and Land-Grant schools have played a huge role in bringing these to the marketplace. The $ weren’t there for private investment, so public scientists took on the task. “Relatively little private investment is dedicated to the improvement of other crops with smaller market shares, including most of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States.” Many more potential food crops are out there waiting to be developed into a sustainable product.
Despite the lack of Land-Grant authors in the report, it was recognized that, “Land grant universities in particular provide a large portion of today’s agricultural research activities for the United States.” The report goes on to say, “Although it is understandable that the land grant universities play a leading role in the agricultural research enterprise, it is essential that other research universities participate in the effort to address these challenges…” The part that got to me was this statement, “Other research universities provide a core expertise in basic science that underlies many of the emerging solutions to U.S. agricultural challenges.” So, these “other” universities are the saving grace of agriculture? Hmm, I am somewhat skeptical of that reasoning. Do these “other” universities have scientists capable of basic research at a high level? Yes of course. Is this statement kind of disrespectful to Land grant universities who also have scientists capable of basic research at a high level? Indeed. What we see is that Land grants and “other” universities do not play on the same field. “Indeed, 18 of the top 20, and all of the top 15, university recipients of NIH funding are not land grant universities, suggesting little overlap between life sciences and agricultural research by institution.” Well, of course — the priorities are different. Agricultural scientists do not chase NIH funds, because the funds do not fit work that agricultural scientists do. The Council recommended an “increase in funding for basic science relevant to agriculture.” Fantastic, but they went on to say that “the investment should be made primarily through the NSF…” The same NSF program that “other” research schools target for funding. This could have the unintended consequences of allocating more funds to schools who are already successful in getting funds and weakening the position of others. It all depends on how the RFPs are written.
In the summary section, the authors state ,”…the lack of a vigorous, competitive program in USDA handicaps the research effort upon which future developments in agriculture rest” and “…ARS research is often dedicated to long-term, public goods, and is important for future preparedness, this large commitment may inhibit the growth of a vibrant competitive grants program” and “…[funds allocated to corn, soy, rice, wheat, and cotton] raise questions about the appropriate allocation of research funds and whether they could be better spent on research challenges that are not a strong focus of the private sector.” Competitive programs yield high, quality projects and high quality results, yet limiting research to competitive programs is not the answer either. Having obtained competitive grant funds and been involved in review of grants, I can say that the most well-written proposals tend to get the highest chance of funding. But, also, the work to be done is important. Could I get a competitive grant from AFRI, SCRI, NSF, NIH, etc. to start a breeding program for passionfruit in the United States? It could be an emerging crop with potential — there is a native species to the U.S. Superior germplasm could be exploited and potentially crossed with tropical germplasm to create viable varieties for the U.S. market. Sounds good, but how much chance would that have against a project with will identify underlying genetic attributes of a certain devastating disease? Or ways to better produce a current commercial crop? I’m not sure the playing field is level in all situations. Another issue with competitive programs is the process — the amount of time, effort, paper, frustration, etc involved is ludicrous. One could conceivable spend a year preparing a grant proposal that does not get funded. What then? The author has nothing to show for one year’s worth of effort. Is that an efficient use of time? Most grant programs have low success rates (<20%), so there could be hundreds of scientists who spend countless hours on a grant proposal with slim chances of succeeding. Even proposals that are deemed worthy of funding don’t get funded because there are not enough funds to go around. Sorry, thanks for playing, try again next year. We chase these grants because we must (peer-reviewed publications and grant dollars are what we are always after), but is it efficient? The argument that competitive grants foster innovation may be true, but it also fosters serious inefficiency. This model brings universities even more into a business mode (as if the BCS hasn’t done enough of that already). I believe scientists spend too much time chasing grants and not enough time thinking deeply about problems and how to solve them. Universities exist because we need philosophers (deep thinkers) on different subjects and to teach those subjects. That is disappearing. Some of you may applaud that, but I think it is a dark path fraught with ambiguity.
The final point the report made was about the recruitment of young, bright scientists into agriculture because “…the best students, particularly in the natural sciences, do not view agriculture, or agriculture-related research, as an attractive career option.” This could have many sources of course. For many years television and other media equate agriculture solely with “farms” and all “farmers” are hicks and hay-seeds. Who wants to be associated with that. Another thing is pay — can the pay in agriculture compete with engineers, doctors, and lawyers? No. And what about jobs? How many jobs are available in agriculture (that are high paying quality positions)? Not enough. Many of the jobs that are out there are in rural areas — not exactly a draw for young professionals. Hmm, let’s see — I can become a lawyer and live in San Diego or I can work in agriculture and get a position in Stuttgart, Arkansas (not to pick on Stuttgart, but it is NOT San Diego).
Even though the report hits on some good points on how to move agricultural research forward, it also doesn’t bring all points to the fore. Perhaps with a little more input from the scientists who actually work in agriculture on a daily basis the report would have been more representative of all realities.