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Important science left out of stimulus research funding: agriculture

Like most Americans, I listened intently last week as President Barack Obama delivered his first address to the nation and the Congress.

Like most Americans, I listened intently last week as President Barack Obama delivered his first address to the nation and the Congress. At the beginning of his speech, as he outlined the economic challenges facing our country, he noted that “the answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories ….” Later in his speech he heralded the “largest investment in basic research funding in American history.” The president could not be more right; investing in basic research will improve our global competitiveness. But these investments need to occur in every area of the federal research budget. 

In the blizzard of new research funding created by the federal stimulus bill, however, an important science has been left out in the cold: agriculture. The stimulus package approved by Congress and President Obama includes $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, $3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $2 billion for the Energy Department — but not a penny for competitive research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). One early version of the Senate’s plan included $100 million for agricultural science research, a tiny amount relative to the other research spending, but it did not survive the negotiating process.

That’s unfortunate. Agricultural science will help us find the answers to some of our greatest problems: food safety, scarcity and cost; water quality and availability; the need for healthy soil and plants to grow food; sustainable energy. While some of the new federal funding certainly will find its way to ag-related scientific matters such as climate change and genomics, specifically designating some of the money toward agriculture would have sent an important message.

Critical to the international marketplace
The recent global food crisis provided a startling reminder of how critical agricultural research is to the international marketplace. One really bad bug or virulent strain of disease can decimate a developing nation’s food supply. This in turn has a negative economic ripple effect across the world.

The latest slight is another example of how the traditional agricultural sciences — agronomy, soil science, animal science and plant pathology — have somehow become inconsequential in the public eye. For the average American, “agricultural science” sounds like something you might have studied a century ago, when many more of us actually lived and worked on farms.

But even though not many of us actually farm anymore, we still need those discoveries. Young scientists who study 21st century agriculture will find it a nuanced, complex field. Today’s agricultural scientist works in a systematic world; he or she must understand not just soil microbes at a molecular level, but also how microbes are affected by fertilizers and how soil contributes to climate change. That knowledge, in turn, will lead to important discoveries that benefit all of us.

Investing in research at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation is of paramount importance but it will generally support long-term basic research. These institutions are not designed to stimulate new and immediate growth. The stimulus package, on the other hand, is aimed at getting people back to work and repairing our country’s infrastructure, as soon as possible.

Ag research can quickly pay off
That’s why it would have been worthwhile to recognize the ways in which agricultural research can quickly be turned into prosperity. New technologies mean new jobs. How can we ignore the kinds of practical solutions that come from agricultural research — the development of new sustainable crops or better protections to prevent soil and chemical erosion into our water supply? Also, agricultural research is conducted cooperatively with local communities, farmers and growers and educators through the national network of extension services. This layered approach is unique to USDA and ensures that benefits of the research are directly translated to public and have quick tangible economic impacts in rural areas.

Agricultural research pays, both in general and economic well-being, and has significant impact on the common good. Studies by my colleagues at the University of Minnesota  have shown that on an international basis over the last half-century, research and development in agriculture generates among the highest average annual rates of return, as much as 58 percent. That seems like a pretty good investment, especially in today’s economy.

Congress and President Obama have missed an opportunity by leaving agricultural research funding out of the stimulus bill. The agricultural sciences are more important now than ever, and even a small infusion of research funding would have helped make that point to the American people.

The president has a chance to rectify this inequity when he submits his budget in late April. He should make a relative small investment in agricultural research that will provide a great economic boon for the nation.

Allen Levine is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Obesity Center. This essay represents his opinion and not the official position of the university or the center.