Humdrum, but somebody's got to do it

April 01, 1997|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON -- It takes a cloned Dolly or the mystery of mad-cow disease to put agricultural research on the front page. Otherwise, this most fundamental science for human well-being

remains largely out of public view and perpetually on the low end of Washington's priorities for research spending.

That's deplorable, because our increasingly crowded world is going to need more food, and the agricultural sciences are indispensable for producing it. Research in this area is also critically important for improving food safety, as we're frequently reminded by millions of episodes of food poisoning, blamed for an estimated 9,000 deaths a year in the United States.

The political and fiscal neglect of farm and food research is masked by the natural advantages of soil and climate that favor American agricultural productivity. On top of that, comparative seed plots can't draw as much media attention as hints of life on Mars, wondrous new treatments for AIDS, genetic clues to dreadful diseases or the discovery of new forms of life in the ocean's depths.

Lacking glamour and too dispersed to command political muscle in Washington, agriculture is the poor relation in government research spending. The dollar figures for this year are striking in their disproportion. For defense research, about $40 billion; NASA, $13 billion; health research, also $13 billion; university-based research through the National Science Foundation, $3 billion.

Agricultural research: $1.7 billion. In purchasing power, its support has declined about 15 percent over the past five years, Joseph D. Coffey, an agricultural specialist, told a Senate hearing recently.

Improved agricultural productivity from research conducted in developing nations is one of the rare triumphs of American foreign-aid programs, often administered through international agricultural organizations. These efforts were complemented by assistance to agricultural schools in developing nations.

Cutting foreign links

But the budget ax has also struck these areas. Over the past decade, according to Robert L. Thompson, head of the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development, U.S. support for international farm research dropped from $108 million to $27 million. Support for international agricultural centers declined from $48 million to $22 million. Help for foreign universities went from $25 million in 1991 to $3 million. As the U.S. agricultural industry expands into foreign markets, he observed, American agricultural students are losing the opportunity to acquire foreign contacts and experience.

The low position of agricultural research in Washington is symbolized by the long absence of a full-fledged appointment for the top research job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The position was filled on an acting basis for three years of Clinton's first term, and is still filled on an acting basis -- hardly a sign of keen political interest or support.

In agricultural research, as in other areas, the decline in federal support has been accompanied by an increase in research spending by industry. But industry tends to focus on short-term solutions that can lead to profits, and, quite appropriately, shuns the lengthy basic studies of uncertain outcome that have traditionally been handled by government-financed laboratories. More so than anyone, industry recognizes the importance of that kind of government-backed research, and urges its continuation.

The financial plight of agricultural research does not arise from rational assessment of how to obtain the best returns from government spending. If that were the criteria, farm and food research would be in the money, because there's ample evidence that it's tops in return on investment.

The neglect, however, persists. Attribute it to the myopia of politics, the lack of media sizzle in agricultural research, and tough competition for the federal research dollar by other sectors.

Whatever the cause, the neglect is inexcusable and dangerous, and in the end, will prove costly.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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