Editor's Note: This is part three of a three-part series on agricultural research looking at restraints imposed on research related to GMO seed and the future of public research funding. In this article, we look at how reduced public funding will impact agricultural research in the future.

When a group of entomologists recently went public with concerns over restraints on research imposed by biotech seed companies, some entomologists feared access to new products as well as existing commercialized products might be cut off. Another fear was possible loss of funding from the companies involved. In fact, one company source suggested that perhaps the entomologists were simply frustrated that all their requests for funding from industry had been denied.

For Ken Ostlie, Extension entomologist, University of Minnesota, it was loss of access that concerned him the most. His funding is diverse, if limited. "Right now I get perhaps five to seven percent of my funding from corporate sources," he explained. "The rest comes from commodity groups, the state of Minnesota or the USDA." However, in a world where the overwhelming majority of acres are planted to biotech trait seed, Ostlie's applications for funding from any sources are likely to fall on deaf ears if he is denied access to seed.

Although biotech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jerry Caulder tends to side with the industry on the need for controlling research on biotech seed, he is adamant that funding of agricultural research should not be an issue. "I don't think any of this would be occurring if we didn't have a government so complacent that funding has to come from industry," he said. "It puts the researcher in an awkward position when they are dependent on company funding. Company funding comes with strings."

What Happened To Public Funding?
Are public researchers dependent on company funding for research dollars? Just how complacent have we allowed the federal government to become in funding ag research? At first glance, public funding for research into on-farm productivity should be a no brainer. Traditionally, such investments in ag research have averaged a return of $10 in benefits to the economy for every dollar invested. Fully half of all growth in ag productivity over the past 50 years can be traced directly to publicly funded research, according to government reports. With stats like that, public researchers should be swimming in cash. Instead, state agricultural experiment stations (SAES) can barely pay the salaries of their researchers and their staff with dedicated USDA funding. USDA budgets have been flat for decades, and state support is being slashed. Funding for research at SAES has turned into a treasure hunt of national proportions as public researchers compete in the private sector for scarce dollars.

Today, only 20 percent of SAES' funding comes from the USDA, with another 20 percent coming from other federal agencies. The largest portion is provided by individual states, with the remainder coming from industry and related sources such as commodity check-off funds. Of the 20 percent that does come from the USDA, only one-third is base dollars the SAES can count on. The remainder is competitive contracts and grants.

"Today, the vast majority of science research funding comes from groups like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and places like that," said Steve Pueppke, assistant vice president for research and graduate studies, Michigan State University. "In fact, the largest grant for research that Michigan State University has ever received was awarded for production of cellulosic biofuels by the Department of Energy."

New People, New Priorities
Pueppke conceded that the research being carried out through these new funding sources can still be related to ag, but questions how long that will continue. Increasingly, research dollars are no longer geared to the specific needs of agriculture in the states. In fact, often the only reason they are ag related at all is that the researchers wrote their grant applications to reflect their backgrounds and expertise.

The problem, he noted, is that many young researchers coming into the public agricultural system while bringing novel perspectives and ideas, have little intuitive understanding of, much less a relationship with, agriculture in the practical sense. Pueppke fears it may be harder for a product of an urban environment or even a foreign country to understand why linking agricultural research to NSF funding is important, much less how to do it.

As for USDA funding, in a recent address given to a Farm Foundation workshop on Agricultural Research and Productivity for the Future, it was made clear that priorities aren't going to change soon. Katherine "Kitty" Smith, Ph.D., the USDA acting administrator, Research, Extension and Education, reviewed the top six research priorities of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They included childhood obesity, renewable fuels, climate change, food safety and alleviating hunger and suffering overseas through international ag development.

When it was pointed out by AgProfessional during the Q&A session that none of the priorities were directly related to ag productivity, Smith, who also serves as the administrator, Agricultural Research Service, said with a wry smile, "Yes, I made that observation myself." She then went on to suggest that there were opportunities within each area for what could be termed "productivity" research, thin slices of each pie though they might be.

Are we already reaping the negative harvest of reduced public funding? While ag productivity gains are often trumpeted, it is the reduced "growth" in gains that signals problems ahead. In his presentation at the workshop, Phil Pardey, professor, Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, noted a significant slowdown in the rate of growth in ag productivity. According to Pardey, corn, rice and wheat had seen average annual yield growth rates of 2.85 percent, 2.27 percent and 1.75 percent, respectively, from 1950 to 1989. Since 1990, average annual yield growth rates have slowed to 1.45 percent in corn, 1.19 percent in rice and 0.71 percent in wheat. This was preceded by reductions in both public and private funding for food and ag research. From 1951 through 1969, the average annual real growth in publicly funded ag R&D was 3.8 percent and private ag R&D was 4.7 percent. Over the next 20 years, public annual increases averaged 1.5 percent and private R&D averaged a growth rate of 1.9 percent. From 1990 on, this dropped to only 1.1 percent, far below the rate of inflation. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the majority of private food and ag research now goes to food. What does go to on-farm productivity is targeted to a few crops and specific outcomes/returns.

What is the Answer?
Will investments in ag productivity by private and public sectors suddenly increase in an era of record federal deficits, state budget cuts and corporate downsizing? It should be noted that when the recent stimulus package was signed into law, not a penny went to agricultural productivity. In fact, the proposed $200 million was eliminated while an extra $10 billion went to the NIH.

Will we follow Great Britain's lead and disband our public research groups, auctioning them off to the highest corporate bidder? Perhaps we will follow in Australia's path where federal research dollars are practically non-existent. Researchers are told to find financing from corporate sources; thus a recent partnership between the state government of Victoria, LaTrobe University (a world leader in bioscience and medical research) and Dow AgroSciences. Will the future be Pioneer/Iowa State University, Monsanto/University of Missouri and Syngenta/North Carolina State University?

Fred Cholick, dean, College of Agriculture and director, Kansas State Research and Extension, suggested a third path.

"Ag research needs to tell its story, and we need a funding mechanism like the NIH ... something that people and public officials can understand and support."