Commentary: Grant writers shouldn’t win big bucks

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I’m sure a percentage of our website visitors got bent out of shape when we reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is awarding $6 million to 10 universities to “study the effects of climate on agriculture production and develop strategies to provide farmers and ranchers with the solutions they need to supply the nation with quality food.”

We posted another article about two private organizations looking for more “AgTech” investment, but not linking that research investment directly to climate change. This request for agricultural funding from the Kauffman Foundation and Donald Danforth Plant Science Center seemed quite logical. 

But most of the university research projects that have earned research dollars from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture seem to be rewards to university grant writers who are good at theoretical searches for wisdom—not real-life production agriculture useful for practical near-term results.

The Iowa State University grant for $550,000 seems to be written so that a short descriptor is impossible to explain. The mumble-jumble explanation in the USDA announcement said the researchers have a goal, which to me doesn’t sound too concrete and that they don’t expect to come up with many real-world answers. “The goal of this research is to examine factors that either facilitate or hinder climate adaptation, while assessing the role of human-made infrastructure and policies that protect natural resources, grassland and wetlands,” USDA wrote.

I see two prime examples of what seems to be projects less than high priority for feeding the world—especially because they are species specific. Montana State University is looking at the “effects a climate-induced rise in water temperature will have on rainbow trout gut microbial communities and fish metabolism;” it has a $800,000 price tag. And for those free-range turkeys that have to contend with volatile weather, Michigan State University will “seek to define the effects of hot and cold temperatures on turkey growth and develop management practices to mitigate these effects” at a cost of only $975,000.

And then there are those research projects that just seem strange to be researched by specific universities. The prime example is Cornell University, in the far north cold of Ithaca, N.Y., receiving a $600,000 grant to “evaluate the resiliency of rice production with increasing climate uncertainty by developing models integrating historical rice yield data (at the county and farm level), weather variables and genotypic parameters.”

When money is handed out for what seems like theoretical research, no wonder there is push back to research funding. I’m a proponent of government funding of agricultural research, but it has to be real-world worthwhile and fully explained to the public beyond scientific mumble jumble, government legalese or university speak.

One project here and another one there that appears to be worthless could ultimately have Congress cut off funding for any research—valuable or not.  

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