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Research funding – don’t throw baby out with bathwater

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  • As federal funding for agricultural research at land grant institutions has fallen off over the last few decades, a percentage of it has been replaced by corporate funding.
  • A new study claims to have found instances where corporations sometimes abuse this privilege with bullying tactics to influence testing or researchers.
  • The study from the public relations arm of the Waterkeeper Alliance concludes that government funds be allocated to identify alternatives to commercial agriculture.

The Food and Water Watch, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., released a study in June, “Public Research, Private Gain,” which directly attacks the integrity of agricultural research at land grant universities paid for by corporate donations.

As we all know, as federal funding for agricultural research has fallen off over the last few decades, a percentage of it has been replaced by corporate funding. The study claims to have found instances where corporations sometimes abuse this privilege with bullying tactics to influence testing or researchers. If this indeed does happen, it hurts not only our industry, but the producers it’s designed to assist.

On the other hand, the sweeping changes suggested by the study’s authors are not necessary – for one good reason. For the most part, our research institutions continue to generate a wealth of reliable, unbiased information based on solid research that continues to benefit producers.

My opinion is far from a heavily researched one, but I can say from my experience with weed scientists, entomologists, plant pathologists and others involved in university-related research in the Mid-South, that I haven’t seen one instance where the origin of research dollars actually influenced the results of a study.

An AP article on the report pointed out that deans at several agricultural schools singled out for criticism in the report maintained that while corporate support is vital, it’s unlikely to influence research.

“We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Thomas Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri. “In order for research to continue, we have to have support from a variety of sources.”

The report says that on average, 25 percent of research funds fall into the corporate category, but to reach that percentage, the FWW also lumped in funds from trade associations and foundations.

What’s ironic about this report were its conclusions – demonstrating once again that bias is indeed in the eyes of the beholder.

For example, the report concluded that that Congress should direct federal funds to developing alternatives to industrialized production. I’m not sure what that has to do with how ag research institutions are funded, but further perusal of the FWW Web site indicates that the organization is highly influenced by organic farming and is infatuated by the concept of bringing back what it calls small family farms. It is also associated with the Waterkeeper Alliance.

The report said government should restore previous funding for the Extension Service, a worthy objective. But there is also a pervasive fear of genetic engineering laced throughout the report and more than one suggestion to not fund GE research at all. Part of their concern is that GE complicates the working relationship between private industry and public research. I get the point, but let’s figure out how to make it work better. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You can read the report at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/tools-and-resources/public-research-private-gain-corporate-influence-over-university-agriculture/

 

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