Agriculture research is facing a crisis of funding and recognition, and those who rely on it need to do a better job of communicating its importance. That’s the point a handful of research supporters made Monday at an event in Washington with the hopes of ginning up support for research funding in the upcoming farm bill.
The facts are undeniable, they say: USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture can fund only about 13 percent of the projects submitted for consideration, and just a tiny sliver – less than 4 percent – of the federal government’s non-defense research dollars are spent on agriculture. The lack of research funding is often used to serve as a caution about slowing future advances in science, but Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA’s director from 2012 to 2018, says there are immediate ramifications as well.
“We have an existential threat,” he said. “It’s happening now. Typically when we frame our conversations about the topic of food and agriculture, we frame it from the perspective of ‘in the year 2050’ and we’re all going to wait with bated breath and something bad is going to happen … Well it’s happening right now.”
Ramaswamy said the current “existential threat” is nutrition security, drawing a difference between that issue and food security. He says in many cases, there isn’t as much an issue with availability of calories, but rather the quality of those calories.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he and others see a lingering issue that needs the attention of everyone from farmers to the federal government. Ramaswamy said looking at all aspects of the research value chain – including distribution – needs to be promoted and encouraged.
“It’s not to say that all we need are transformative discoveries; we need a whole bunch of Ph.D's running around discovering all new knowledge,” Ramaswamy said. "If that knowledge ends up in a book or a journal or whatever, it’s worthless. We’ve got to translate that knowledge into innovations and solutions and deliver it.”
That, he said, should be done through the cooperative extension system, which has in the past had experts at the local level to interact with producers, but Ramaswamy said “we’ve lost one-third of our footprint in our extension efforts across America.”
“We should all wake up and smell the coffee and be very, very concerned that we’ve allowed our extension community to lose its ability,” he added.
If that coffee isn’t smelled, Dan Glickman, a former ag secretary during the Clinton administration, thinks the results could be dire. He said ag research supporters need to get more vocal “so that people think what we’re doing is in the same level of importance as what other people in the scientific community are doing.
“If we don’t do that, we will always be playing second fiddle to those other parts of the research establishment,” Glickman said.
As evidence of his point, Glickman made reference to the continuing saga of Sam Clovis, who withdrew his nomination for a position that would have put him at the helm of USDA’s science and research efforts. Questions about Clovis’ qualifications as well as comments made as a conservative pundit and his name surfacing in the Special Counsel’s Russia investigation ultimately led to him pulling his own candidacy.
Glickman said his comments weren’t intended as a “slap at the president or Dr. Clovis,” but should serve as a reminder to ag research supporters that they shouldn’t be afraid to promote the value of the field of study.
“Can you imagine the government appointing the head of the National Science Foundation as somebody with no science background?” Glickman said. “I suspect one of the reasons it happens is because we in agriculture have had such a difficult time making the case that what we’re doing is important, that it’s critical for the future of the human race.”
“We have to do an extraordinarily better job of relating this to average people how it affects their lives,” Glickman added, “and if we don’t do this, I suspect we’ll have continuing problems.”
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