State governments around the US are in the process of finalizing their budgets for the coming year(s). In all but 1 or 2 states, all recipients of state government funding are being told to do make do with less. This list of those doing with less include our land grant universities, a cornerstone of American Agriculture.
In the case of Minnesota, the Governor’s un-allotment process means $50 million less to the University of Minnesota. While I don’t have specifics on how much of this will have to come from the College of Agriculture, you can bet they will be asked for their fair share. In Nebraska, the cut to the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is $1 million. Almost 50% of this cut will in the form of reduced state dollars to support technicians for agricultural scientists.
Two weeks ago I was part of a group pulled together by the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council to address this issue of declining funding for agricultural research, teaching and research. One of the first presenters was Dr Bob Easter, current Dean of Agriculture at the University of Illinois.
Bob is well known to many of us as a leading swine nutrition researcher. He has now become a leading spokesperson for Colleges of Agriculture as they struggle with declining state and federal dollars to fund their missions of teaching, research and extension. Bob’s presentation was very effective in helping the group understand why agriculture (and pork production in our case) is changing so rapidly at land grant institutions.
Bob began his talk by reminding the group that as Dean of Agriculture, he is the CEO for a $150 million dollar per year business. As CEO, he is responsible for having his books balance at the end of the year. As state and federal funding for production research has declined, while costs of doing research have climbed, scientists are increasingly being asked to seek out grant funds to pay the bills. In fact, a key criteria in new hires is the ability to successfully write and obtain grants.
In the case of agriculture, there are few dollars available for such items as production research (pigs per pen, what type of drinkers, impacts of management on profits, etc). The main funding source for much of the scientific discovery process at public institutions in the US has become the science initiatives of the federal government (NSIF and NIH). In the round of economic stimulus funding of the Obama administration this spring these funding sources had added monies available while agricultural funding was largely ignored.
Given the financial squeeze being placed on Colleges of Agriculture by declining general support dollars, administrators by necessity have been hiring faculty that can compete for these new federal funds. In almost every instance, this means they are likely to have little or no farm experience or contacts with the agricultural production community. This does not mean they are not good scientists – it just means they won’t be able to respond to producers or allied industry phone calls. It also means the training of graduate students for many of the production system and allied industry openings is becoming more basic, and less hands-on as it relates to production agriculture.
Even the teaching of production agriculture is changing in response to this financial pressure. Bob related that in the early 1970’s, the college of agriculture received over $7 of state monies for every $1 of tuition income from students. Today they receive less than $1 for every dollar of tuition income. If Bob has a faculty member teaching a 3 credit course, he receives approximately $420 in tuition income for every student enrolled. If he offers a class that has only 10 students enrolled, this is only $4200 in income to cover salaries, and doing such things as turning on the lights, paying for custodial services, etc. Clearly not enough.
This leads to the question – what does the future of ag research, teaching and extension look like? Here the crystal ball gets somewhat fuzzier, but for sure production research will continue, but with almost all of it being done in the private sector by production companies. Witness my involvement as science director in a private research site, and the continued growth in the number of private sites for mid-large production systems. The missing link is this is information availability for the small-mid sized system that does not invest in research.
While the National Pork Board is investing checkoff dollars in research, the pool of monies they have available is limited, and in many instances faculty are discouraged from seeking these dollars because of the relatively small size of the grant versus NSIF or NIH grants.
Just as producers are asked to become more involved in their explanations to neighbors and local communities of their production practices, etc., they will have to become more involved in their state political processes if they want to impact this decline in ag research. With agriculture representing only 2% of the US population (maybe closer to 8-10% if we add in allied industry and processing), unless we repeatedly make our case to elected leadership, we stand no chance.