Ag research needs unified push (Editorial)

(Sept. 1, 2015) Last winter, the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation released a report on how to elevate agricultural research as a national priority.
The report documented that the United States is in danger of losing its position of international prominence in the scientific research upon which food, agriculture and natural resources systems depend.
The report called for public and private organizations to work together on a common message and toward a common goal at a time when global challenges require additional investment in agricultural research.
Soon after its release, 23 university leaders developed a “university perspective” in creating a unified message to campaign for more federal dollars toward research.
Consensus was easily formed around the idea that federal funding for agriculture research had become “anemic.”
A sobering thought shared in the discussion was that individual universities or university systems represented around the table had greater budgets than the $2.9 billion in total USDA research funding.
Some nonprofit entities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation appear to be funding applied and basic science in food and agriculture at more aggressive levels than the nation’s investment.
The leaders noted the amount of funding has a big impact on faculty hiring and the future workforce at universities and in the agriculture industry.
“University leaders are taking a hard look at available external funding opportunities for new hires,” the leaders said in their report. “They find themselves having to decide between hiring someone focused on pursuing USDA funding or someone who can compete more broadly for research funding opportunities in the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey or other federal agencies. Also, hiring faculty members in areas where research funding is inadequate may undercut their ability to succeed. University leaders may prefer to hire someone who could advance food and agriculture, but the reality is they know where the dollars are and what is expected of them to ensure external funding helps sustain the university’s infrastructure.”
At a time with an estimated 57,900 high-skilled job openings annually in agriculture and environment fields, but only an average of 35,400 new graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher to fill those openings, according to a recent jobs outlook report from USDA and Purdue University, graduates from outside the United States will be eager to make up that shortfall.
“Research funding allows universities to mentor and train the next generation of scientists, Extension specialists, industry leaders and economic analysts working in food, agriculture and natural resources. Many industry leaders are extremely concerned about having an educated workforce to fill ‘innovation jobs,’ requiring education at all levels, undergraduate to graduate,” the university leaders said.
To push for more research funding, the group made 12 suggestions to consider in crafting a unified message.
Among them was the notion to make agriculture as personal as public health.
“The public is always interested in ‘the next greatest thing’ in health research, what may improve their personal or family health or what may potentially solve or cure ailments that cause pain and suffering,” the leaders said. “The same kind of engagement does not exist for agricultural research; for example, much of the public does not think deeply or personally about its food supply.
While health-related personal or family emergencies or disasters hit home, most in the nation are not experiencing, or have not experienced, a food-related emergency.
When a state’s drought or an emerging crop or livestock disease affects food supplies, most people simply adjust without a second thought.
It’s the same challenge farmers face daily as people across the United States treat food as, at best, an afterthought, something they’ll always have at their fingertips.
But with billions more mouths to feed in the coming decades, and no firm answers on how to do it, the need for pertinent and reliable research which primes the pump of so much of how food is grown and consumed gets ever greater.