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Funding Shifts Leave UW-Madison’s AG College Short On Research Dollars To Address Wisconsin Problems

As federal support for applied research declines, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison faces growing difficulty addressing agricultural and natural resource problems in Wisconsin.

“The losses we”ve experienced over the past 10 years in federal formula funds and extension have eroded our ability to conduct applied research and outreach programs that can make an impact in the near future,” says Margaret Dentine, the College”s interim associate dean for research.

Dentine says funds for CALS research come from three types of sources: 1) competitive grants from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, USDA, and National Science Foundation; 2) USDA formula funds – including the Hatch Program – that are given to each land-grant ag college; and 3) non-federal gifts and grants including those from private industry, commodity groups, state agencies, foundations and other groups.

“During the past 10 years, Hatch and other USDA formula funds have decreased 19 percent when adjusted for inflation,” Dentine says. “Although the competitive grants our researchers receive contribute to solutions that benefit Wisconsin, USDA formula funds are our most important source of dollars to study applied problems and address the immediate needs of client groups.”

With Hatch funds shrinking, CALS researchers – like researchers at ag colleges across the country – turned to federal agencies to fund their studies [see accompanying press release]. To acquire these grants, scientists propose specific research projects, and expert panels in each agency review the grant proposals and award money to projects judged most likely to advance the understanding of science.

“CALS faculty members have had great success in competing for federal grants,” Dentine says. “That success insures our investment in basic research, which will have important payoffs in the future. However, it will not generate immediate solutions for today”s problems. And modest increases in non-federal grants,” she says, “have not kept pace with our need to address Wisconsin issues.”

In CALS, unlike many land-grant ag colleges, Hatch and other federal formula funds are not the largest source of research funds. In the 1997/98 CALS research budget, formula funds constituted only 9.9 percent of the total. That same year, federal grants contributed 61.8 percent and non-federal gifts and grants 28.3 percent.

Dentine says two factors contribute to the success in acquiring federal grants. First, she says, the College includes the Departments of Bacteriology, Biochemistry, and Genetics – a group of exceptional scientists able to compete for federal grants in today”s “hot” fields of molecular biology and genetics. Secondly, Dentine says, more scientists across the College have been successful in acquiring federal grants as agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the EPA increased competitive grant programs for biological and environmental research.

The changing nature of research support is but half the problem CALS faces, according to Dentine. Although less publicized than staff reductions in private industry, CALS has experienced a dramatic downsizing. From 1988 to 1998, the College lost more than one in six of its faculty positions while its undergraduate enrollment increased by more than 7 percent. The faculty losses have been most severe in Extension, whose major role is to respond to the needs of Wisconsin citizens and groups.

“During the past 10 years, our federal and state funding for faculty with Extension appointments in the College is down 19 percent,” Dentine says. “To maintain our responsibilities as best we can, increasingly we are relying on academic staff instead of faculty members.”