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The Need For Balance in Research

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The next 40 years will see a global population explosion unlike any in recorded human history, placing unparalleled demands on the agricultural industry.  It is clear that science and technology will serve as catalysts for change—just as they have throughout history. Be it a cure for polio or surfing an invisible global Internet, the next step in mankind’s evolution usually begins with a technological or scientific breakthrough.

These advancements require two interconnected elements—dedicated people with a unified focus, and a secure and consistent stream of funding.

First, let’s consider the people conducting the research. The current research model unfolds like this: about $140 billion a year in federal funds are distributed to researchers through various granting bodies, such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. Researchers use these funds to study everything from astrophysics to zoology. The typical outcome for you, the taxpayer, is in many instances a research paper in an obscure scientific journal.  This lack of tangible outcomes has people, specifically policymakers, asking as they should why we fund research.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 19, 2012), Paul Baskin asks: “How much payback, in real dollars, does science spending actually provide?” Quantifying concepts as vast and vague as “research” is almost impossible, so Baskin is left without firm conclusions. He does, however, cite one of the earliest studies attempting to nail down the value of research Project Hindsight done in the 1960s, which looked at military-related research and outcomes. The study determined that only 0.3% of needed weapons systems developed came from basic scientific exploration. The remainder resulted “from researchers trying to fulfill a specific military need.” Even if the needed systems derived from 5% or as much as 15% of basic exploration—certainly a dramatic increase from 0.3%—can such outcomes meet the rising need in agriculture? I fear not.

In the same article Joseph Lane, director of the Center for Assistive Technology at the University of Buffalo, argues that countries like China are far more interested in finding commercial applications for basic science discoveries than in pursuing basic science itself. To be clear, research in the pursuit of knowledge is absolutely necessary. However, we cannot pin our hopes of finding lifesaving breakthroughs for complex global agricultural problems on curiosity-driven research. That’s like throwing a dart in a dark room and hoping to hit the light switch.

We live in a critical age that requires accountability and stewardship of resources. Researchers now have the responsibility to both future generations and taxpayers to shake off old methodologies and focus on developing tangible products.

This becomes even more important as resources become scarcer. Baskin notes that research funding has decreased almost every year since 2003. (It is notable that public funding for agricultural research has been largely flat for more than four decades.) The looming fiscal cliff could cause an 8% ($12.5 billion) cut in research and development (R&D) budgets in 2013. Who is going to pay for research? The answer is simple: private industry and private wealth.

An article in the December issue of the journal Science, reports on a USDA study of the relationship between public and private investments in agriculture R&D, finding that private sources are playing a vital role in bolstering research. Yet such funding pales in comparison to expenditures for human health research.

As a nation and world, we must strive to bring more private dollars and guidance into the agricultural research sector, driving research to find tangible outcomes to specific problems. Pairing private and public activities is a proven formula and necessary to meet our challenges.

There are pitfalls, of course, as private industry tends to focus on those sectors within agriculture that produce the most profit (e.g., commodity crops), leaving out key (smaller) agricultural areas like livestock-related research, specialty crops and crop protection applications.

The bottom line: there must be a balance between strictly knowledge-based and outcome-driven research, between public and private funding, and in where those dollars are invested.

But what do you think?


Bill Buckner Bill Buckner (wbuckner@noble.org)
President and CEO of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation www.noble.org | Twitter | Facebook

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The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.