Private-sector funding of agricultural research has been growing quickly in recent years, but that does not diminish the importance of using public money to support advances in farming, a panel of experts said at a Farm Foundation forum at the National Press Club Wednesday.

“All of our institutions do a lot of work with the private sector and it’s a really important part of the portfolio,” said Jay Akridge, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Purdue University, who also holds a faculty position as an ag economist.

However, he said, “Public funds let the public set the agenda,” which may be quite different from the agenda of a company seeking to get a product approved for sale, for example.

And Michael Martin, president of Florida Gulf Coast University, said private companies will fund research where there is potential profit to be made, but some issues are best addressed using public resources.

For instance, “The great battle over water will have to somehow be handled both through diplomacy and through science,” he said. And natural resources issues in general need to be dealt with by public entities.

“Many things can be done in the private sector very effectively,” Martin said, but “the great conflicts … will require a strong public sector component.”

Akridge and Martin were two of the four panelists. The others were former U.S. senator from Indiana Richard Lugar, head of The Lugar Center in Washington, D.C., and Ronnie Green, chancellor of the University of Nebraska.

Funding sources have had to change as public funding has become harder to find, Green said, noting that Nebraska has gone from relying on public money, whether it be federal, state or local, to a more diverse funding model, which includes public, private, philanthropic and international sources.

Agricultural research funding is critical, the panelists said, emphasizing the value that a dollar spent now can have when the investment is realized. Green mentioned the oft-cited statistic that ag research investment can result in returns of 20:1.

But the U.S. has fallen behind China in ag research spending in this decade, the panelists noted. A 2016 Economic Research Service report found that between 1990 and 2013, “the U.S. share of spending among nations with major public agricultural R&D investments fell from 22.5 percent to 13.4 percent.” Meanwhile, “Chinese government spending on agricultural R&D rose nearly eightfold in real (inflation-adjusted) terms between 1990 and 2013, surpassing U.S. spending in 2008.”

In 2013, the report said, “public research institutions – namely USDA intramural research and land grant universities, state agricultural experiment stations, and cooperating institutions – performed under 30 percent of total agricultural R&D.

The jobs are there for students who want to pursue ag research. Akridge said “most ag programs around the country are looking at near-record enrollments,” and that agriculture students from Purdue have a 95 success rate when looking for a job.

He said the number of graduates with degrees in agriculture-related fields is about 35,000 annually, but the number of openings is around 57,000.

Martin said that it’s not all about finding a job. “We not only produce future employees, we produce future leaders and future citizens,” he said. “Sometimes we underestimate the citizen side of what education does for us.”

Interested in more news about the farm bill, trade issues, pesticide regulations and more hot topics?

Sign up here for a four-week Agri-Pulse free trial. No risk and no obligation to pay.

The mission of higher education, he said, is “to transform individual lives so they’ll transform the greater society.”

Faced with the question of the day – whether USDA's Economic Research Service and National Institute on Food and Agriculture should be moved out of Washington, D.C. – the panelists were silent for a moment.

Green, a former Agricultural Research Service employee, said there were good points to be made on both sides of the question, and Lugar said it’s important that employees be in Washington, D.C., to make the case for their agencies to members of Congress.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said that a “cadre” of ERS and NIFA senior officials would remain behind to do precisely that.

For more news, go to