Corporate money doesn’t taint university ag research

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The reality of agricultural research at U.S. land-grant universities is that if it were not for private industry investment there wouldn’t be much research going on at all. Federal and state funding of ag research continues to decline, but teaching and learning depends on some hands-on research for educating the agricultural scientists of the future.

The Food and Water Watch, a consumer environmental advocacy group, recently completed a study about ag research funding that found “nearly one-quarter of the money spent on agricultural research at land-grant universities comes from corporations, trade associations and foundations,” according to Alan Scher Zagier, an Associated Press reporter.

That percentage concerns the Food and Water Watch group, but many land-grant university professors and agricultural professionals would have estimated the percentage of such funding would have been even higher. Government funds to support research has been rapidly drying up, and there have been cutbacks in the university professors with research responsibilities or Extension field work projects. The most recent financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was the lowest level in nearly 20 years and accounted for less than 15 percent of the total research budgets at the universities, according to the study findings.

“Today most of our research has to be funded by our corporate partners because they are the ones with the dollars to do so. If we want to increase yields and improve sustainability and make them a national priority, there are research people out there that can make it happen. But there is almost no money that goes into yield research other than from the corporate partners,” said Fred Below, professor of crop physiology, University of Illinois. He made his comments during the BASF Agricultural Solutions Media Summit in Chicago last week.

Food and Water Watch apparently sees the private sector “meddling in the lab” as Scher Zagier wrote, and ‘corrupts’ the mission of land-grant universities to maintain agriculture and engineering focused educational programs. The activist group’s report is titled “Public Research, Private Gain.”

There are examples of private companies trying to block some university research or sharing of research results, but false results are not issued because of corporate pressure, according to deans of universities. The deans consistently say they are positive corporate funding does not influence research results.

Not doing the research would result in a void of well educated college graduates. “This research is done by graduate students and post docs who will be the next generation of graduates that these companies will hire. I’m struck by how little money actually goes into agricultural related research, and I think it’s largely because people think it should be a focus of the agricultural industry,” Below said.

Refusal to invest government, educational money into ag research seems to go hand in hand with demands that government spending be cut and decisions that available money be allocated to what taxpayers think are more important programs. Although ag research can result in higher gross domestic product and cheaper food, indications are that taxpayers see ag research as only helping the less than 2 percent directly involved in farming. Lack of funding puts universities between the rock and the hard place as one university dean of agriculture noted in talking to the AP reporter.

While Below called working with ag companies, such as large multi-nationals, partnerships, the Food and Water Watch is quoted as referring to them as alliances.

Scher Zagier wrote that Patty Lovara, Food and Water Watch's assistant director, contends that alliances result in universities handling their role far differently from land-grant universities' historic role in promoting public knowledge and freely sharing the fruits of their research. Lovara said the report notes that publicly funded university research led to the domestication of blueberries, early varieties of high-yield hybrid corn and common tools to fight soil erosion.

He quoted Lovara as saying, "There's a real sense in agriculture of what these schools used to be. There was much more trust in what they put out. This is not the same research system of decades ago, and we're acting like it is."

Times have changed, Below suggested. He said universities need resources to train about research but won’t be funded to the level the research and development divisions of major companies are today. “We don’t have the resources to do the same quality of research that some of the companies like BASF, but we do have innovative young minds that make serendipitous discoveries and are willing to put their life into it,” he said. “That training continues to be necessary. We need fellowships and targeted grants and programs to be able to train the next generation of agricultural scientists.”

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