In my last post, I discussed two interrelated issues that impact the potential productivity of research in the United States.
First, we live in a critical age that requires scientists to focus their primary research efforts on developing tangible outcomes. Pure knowledge-based research, as part of a larger research “portfolio,” has its place to fuel a pipeline of innovation. But, to halt the looming agricultural crisis and feed a burgeoning global population, research priorities must focus on answering practical questions.
The research continuum is impaired, however, by the current public funding model, which continues to rely on diminishing federal dollars. Public funding for agricultural research has been largely flat for more than four decades and is trending downward.
The bottom line: agricultural research is falling behind, public funds are limited and time is in short supply.
Alone the federal government cannot achieve the funding levels necessary to ignite a research renaissance. Collaborations with private resources, including both industry and individuals, must be conceived, constructed and implemented in new ways to meet the objectives of those of us across the globe that like to eat and wear clothing.
Private industry already serves as an invaluable partner for the agricultural research community. In its recent “Report to the President on Agriculture Preparedness and the Agriculture Research Enterprise,” the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) showed that private industry represents 61%, or $8.7 billion, of the total of $14 billion spent for agricultural R&D in 2009 in the United States.
Despite its tremendous contribution, private industry alone is not a silver bullet. Private industry tends to focus on pursuits that produce the most profit (e.g., commodity and high-value crop production), leaving smaller, but equally important areas like livestock-related research or specialty crops, i.e., fruits and vegetables, for others to handle. At the same time, USDA spends 27% of its budget, researching the same crops—corn, wheat, rice—that are the primary focus of private industry. We must bring these two sides together to understand what research is complementary and where unnecessary overlaps can be eliminated. This whole-system approach offers more effective outcomes.
Public and private sectors are potentially complementary. The public effort often performs research for the overall public good, which may have little or no profit potential, but it often fails to have the needed focus; private industry may have too narrow of a focus. Together, public-private partnerships can succeed in bringing quality, tangible research to fruition that is beneficial for both parties.
But this will require organization and cooperation.
Together—with a unified end game in mind—private institutions and public organizations can prioritize objectives and develop a whole-system approach to addressing our many agricultural challenges.
Simple steps can have enormous impact. One example: these sectors can identify and reduce the aforementioned areas over overlapping work, which can immediately free up federal research dollars. This would fill in research gaps, allow the public sector to work on under-developed areas, and still afford the private sector profitable opportunities.
As a private-nonprofit organization, the Noble Foundation has considerable experience working with the public sector to advance agriculture. For example, in 2001, the Noble Foundation initiated a world-wide effort to sequence the genome of Medicago truncatula to develop a public “blueprint” to improve other legumes.
At a time when genome sequencing was an expensive, emerging tool, the initial gift provided by the Noble Foundation served as a catalyst for an international consortium to form, with further support from significant contributions by the National Science Foundation. As the genome was committed to the public through a freely accessible database, outcomes from this project provide the backbone for legume research throughout the world—by Noble Foundation scientists and scientists from both private and public sectors.
Both private and public sectors can thrive if given the proper environment, an environment described in the PCAST report: “the creation of an innovation ecosystem for agriculture that combines public and private R&D efforts to most efficiently meet both the short- and long-term dimensions of the challenges [facing agriculture].”
We know these collaborations can be effective. Now, we must be committed to removing barriers to enable such collaborations.