The nation”s agricultural colleges frequently come under fire for a growing reliance on private industry for research funding and for developing ties to agribusiness that have become too cozy. But recent surveys of scientists at U.S. ag colleges don”t support those claims.
“Our data show that industry”s share of research support changed little between 1989 and 1996,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison rural sociologist Fred Buttel. “Nor is there evidence that researchers are developing closer relationships with industry. In fact, researchers may be growing more wary of close ties with industry.”
There have been many reports during the past decade on changes in the nation”s ag colleges, Buttel says. The portrait that emerges is one in which a shrinking clientele of farmers, level or falling public funding for ag research, and the rise of molecular biology and biotechnology result in university agricultural scientists turning to industry as a key client group and source of research support.
“Those reports have been based on little concrete data, or else on aggregate data that aren”t very useful in describing the conditions that a typical ag scientist faces,” Buttel says. He and Jessica Goldberger, a research assistant also with the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, evaluated key changes in the land-grant agricultural colleges
by analyzing responses from individual faculty members. The sociologists conducted surveys in 1989 and 1996, comparing their findings, where possible, with results with a landmark survey done in 1979. The results excluded veterinary, home economics and extension faculty from all comparisons between 1979 and 1996, and also excluded social scientists and agricultural engineers from 1989 and 1996 comparisons. Therefore, biological scientists dominated the survey.
Buttel and Goldberger found that between 1979 and 1996 the research spending by the average scientist decreased from $134,000 to $112,000 per year when adjusted for inflation. Grants from the Hatch Act, which originate at the USDA and include a match from the individual states, remain the single largest source of funds for agricultural research, according to Buttel. However, between 1989 and 1996 Hatch funding decreased from 36 percent of the average researcher”s support to 26 percent.
The scientists surveyed strongly agreed that private sponsorship of land-grant ag research is needed because public research funds are not adequate, Buttel says. However, funding from private industry and commodity groups, taken together, rose only from 15.6 percent to 16.8 percent between 1989 and 1996.
To study ties between ag college researchers and industry, Buttel and Goldberger looked at the percentage of faculty who owned equity positions in private companies, received private industry support, or consulted with, communicated with or advised private firms. The UW Madison sociologists found no significant changes between 1989 and 1996.
“When asked for their views of university-industry relationships, a number of researchers in the sample expressed growing concern over closer ties with industry,” Buttel says. “Compared with their responses in 1989, significantly more agricultural college researchers in 1996 said that growing links with industry would result in their research becoming too oriented to industry needs, reduce their opportunity to study basic biology, and inhibit open communications.
“Financial support from grants is critically important to agricultural scientists, as it is to other university researchers,” says Buttel. The availability of money for research has long been an important criterion scientists use to determine what topics they study. But between 1979 and 1996 it rose from the ninth most important factor to the fourth, ranking just behind the criterion of “importance to society” and ahead of “publication probability in professional journals.”
Buttel and Goldberger found that grants also play an increasingly important role in faculty promotion decisions. Those surveyed in 1996 said that receipt of grants or contracts is now nearly as important in determining faculty promotions as their publication record.
With funding dominating faculty research decisions and USDA funds stagnating, more and more land-grant scientists turned to competing with other biologists for grants from federal agencies other than USDA. Most of the grants came from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, according to Buttel.
“Non-USDA federal competitive grants now are the second most important source of funds for ag researchers, right after Hatch funds,” says Buttel.