SCIENCE sciencemag.org 3 OCTOBER 2014 • VOL 346 ISSUE 6205 13
Nine billion people are expected to inhabit Planet Earth by 2050. Without agricultural research, there is little hope of sustaining this population surge, given that arable land and water supplies are fixed commodities. Yet for decades the agricultural sector has suffered from neglect. If we want to com- bat new strains of pests that destroy crops, find
new crop varieties enriched in nutritional value, improve
yields, develop resistance to disease and drought, and
provide environmentally sensitive cultivation practices,
then agricultural research must be a priority. Why isn’t it?
In the 1970s, as a biology professor at Stanford University, I worked with the Office
of Science and Technology Policy
in the White House to discover
what incentives might encourage the growth of competitive
peer-reviewed agricultural research. At the time, other major federal agencies such as the
U.S. National Instiutes of Health
were enjoying boosts in competitive research funding. On the
other hand, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) used “
formula” funding on a regional
or commodity-focused basis,
largely through the public land-grant universities. That process
yielded key advances, increasing
our ability to feed more people:
improved fertilizers, artificial irrigation, harvest mechanization,
and hybridization. But many researchers believed that advances
in basic science would provide
new ways to revolutionize agricultural production. We found it
hard to understand why a brilliant cell biologist had to seek
support from another agency to fund innovative research,
rather than make a major contribution to how we grow
food through support from USDA. A modest competitive
grant program was launched then, but its survival in future budget cycles turned out to be perilous.
What happened? Over the past 35 years, new ventures
in U.S. public investment in agriculture research and
development confronted a steady decline. At the same
time, great advances in biochemistry, cell and molecular
biology, and genetics were being made through increased
funding to other agencies for competitive merit-based
research grants. Because of the earlier history, agricul-
tural research is now in a deficit position with respect to
the infrastructure, human capital, and policies needed to
address the challenges of food security.
A real revolution in agricultural research is possible if
today’s deeper knowledge, new tools, and advanced capacities could be effectively blended. Fortunately, in response to a USDA task force (headed by William Danforth,
then the chancellor of Washington University), Congress
created the National Institute of Food and Agriculture
(NIFA) within USDA in 2006 as a means to modernize the
management of fundamental agricultural research. NIFA
now manages $200 million in
competitive merit-based grants
for fundamental agricultural research through its Agriculture
and Food Research Initiative.
That new agency is one of the
rare federal research programs
to have shown steady increases
over the past 5 years, making
this a major turnaround in competitive research support.
Despite this success, the current level of funding for USDA
falls short of the opportunity
presented by the agricultural
sciences. Certainly, today’s fiscal
climate makes it hard to argue
for extending discretionary federal spending. That is why nonpartisan science-based groups
that have seen the need to bolster research in agriculture and
are willing to work for its improvement are important players. One is the recently created
organization called Supporters
of Agriculture Research (SoAR).
William Danforth, appropriately,
is its chairman. SoAR includes eminent scientists across
disciplines as well as representatives of consumer and
commodity groups, and I am eager to work with them.
High on SoAR’s agenda is to increase funding for com-
petitive grants, so that USDA can encourage interdisci-
plinary and innovative research.
The much-needed revolutions in agriculture can only
come about through the investments that we make now.
Nine billion people will, we hope, reap the benefits of
today’s wise decisions.
Building agricultural research
Donald Kennedy is
and a former
– Donald Kennedy
based groups that have
seen the need to bolster
research in agriculture…are