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It's time to fix the system

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As concern for how we feed 9 billion by 2050 rises in our consciences, support for the research needed to do so emerges as a major challenge. A recent paper released by AGree highlights how much the United States is lagging in investment in public supportfor agricultural research. This report should be required reading for policy makers.

Over the course of 28 years as a department administrator, assistant research director and research center administrator in Land Grant institutions I have seen the effects of the reduction in public support for agricultural research, primarily through USDA formula, on agricultural research and extension in our Land Grant universities.

In 1973, as an assistant professor with “additional” responsibility for operations at two university livestock operations, I was told by a USDA/ARS center director: “When your allocated budget total that is tied up in personnel costs exceeds 70%, you have lost the ability to manage an effective and relevant research program.” When I became a department administrator in 1981, the share of personnel costs in my department was: 78% in research, 85% in extension and 92% in teaching. By the time I retired in 2009, those numbers had increased to the point where more than 90% of public funding in some colleges of agriculture was allocated to personnel costs.  Manage an effective research and extension program in that environment? Not a chance! 

An effective agricultural research program requires technical support—the technicians, supplies and laboratory equipment that faculty need to conduct, publish and deliver research. In an increasing number of cases the erosion of public funding for colleges of agriculture, and thus departments, has resulted in the total loss of funding for technical support. Grant support for technical help is certainly a viable option, but public funding for grants to support agricultural research is entirely inadequate. Funding for grant programs like USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) cannot support a success rate that places agricultural faculty on a par with other competing segments of the system, such as the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation. Increasingly, the result is a fallback to product testing supported by industry. In many cases this is not in the public good and faculty lose enthusiasm. 

Faculty in Land Grant agricultural departments are usually hired with “split appointments,” meaning their salary support is allocated on the basis of their time and effort devoted to research, extension and teaching. Percentages vary from position to position.  As state and federal funding for the core budget of Land Grant universities shrinks, and tuition’s share of the budget rises, the pressures grow on faculty with split appointments.  In some cases, departments with heavy research and extension loads face declining budgets and slow erosion of programs as faculty retire or leave and cannot be replaced. In other cases, where undergraduate enrollments in colleges of agriculture are increasing, the increased teaching loads in agricultural colleges have not been followed by increased allocations of teaching funds.  The result is that non-teaching (research and extension) monies are siphoned off by the agricultural colleges to cover the shortfall. Solving that issue will require engagement of the entire Land Grant institution since, in many cases, the required shift in funds comes at the expense of traditional core Arts and Sciences or Liberal Arts colleges with well-established turf and political clout. 

The above observations reflect the need for the Land Grant system to take a very hard and comprehensive look at itself and its silo mentality, and come to grips with the need to re-examine and radically change its model. Some are doing that, reaching out to institutions on a regional basis to offer appropriate courses and programs on a tuition-trade-off basis. Others are looking to state colleges and other in-state institutions to share some of the teaching loads on an equal content-quality basis so that course credit transfer is seamless, and the infrastructure cost for higher education is distributed throughout the state or regional system. This means some necessary consolidation in administrative units, which is a good thing. 

On the research side, the revival of collaborative programs based on the regional research model of the past is LONG overdue. That highly effective program allowed public funding to be directed to substantive needs on a regional basis and, in other cases, on a specific topic basis.  It provided for engagement by researchers from numerous institutions on a collaborative, productive and efficient basis, regardless of institutional size. 

It is time to tear the local silos down and fix the system. The people of the world are depending on it.


Leonard S. Bull Leonard S. Bull (homebull@aol.com)
Animal Science Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University, Advising Animal Agriculture and Environmental Issues www.ncsu.edu

View more posts by Leonard S. Bull

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