March 28, 2009

On Friday (March 27), my department hosted Dr. Charles Rice, a professor and soil microbiologist at Kansas State University.  Dr. Rice is an alumnus of my department, and has had a very distinguished career.  His presentation, and much of his research, dealt with the roles that agricultural practice may mitigate against elevated carbon dioxide.  Among the things he has found (and that I learned of) is that agricultural practice (such as no-till farming) can increase the amount of carbon deposition in soils, enough so as to provide an economical and practical avenue to reducing atmospheric CO2 (without requiring lots of new investment or technology).  Impressively, he was member of a group and a co-author of a report that earned recognition by way of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.  This is an outstanding achievement, and certainly a feather in the caps of my department and of the University of Kentucky.

Big news, no?  Well, in Kentucky, this is really big news.

Oh well …

What about agricultural science?

March 8, 2009

From an op-ed by Allen Levine in today’s Washington Post:

Like most Americans I listened intently as President Obama delivered his first address to the nation and Congress.

He outlined the economic challenges facing our country, noting “the answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories.” And he heralded the “largest investment in basic research funding in American history.” The president could not be more right. Investing in basic research will improve our global competitiveness but these investments need to occur in every area of the federal research budget.

In the blizzard of new research funding created by the federal stimulus bill, an important science was omitted: agriculture. While $10 billion was included for the National Institutes of Health, $3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $2 billion for the Energy Department, not a penny was dedicated for competitive research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

That’s unfortunate. Agricultural science will help us find the answers to some of our greatest problems: food safety, scarcity and cost; water quality and availability; the need for healthy soil and plants to grow food; and sustainable energy. While some of the new federal funding will find its way to agriculture-related issues like climate change and genomics, designating federal dollars to agriculture would have sent an important message.

One can read many signals into this development.  Competitive basic research has always been an afterthought with the USDA, moreso now that its competitive grants program has become more and more targeted in recent years (excluding general and basic research in favor of targeted, pre-determined areas of interest).  When it comes to a basic understanding of how plants work, there is a great deal of work to be done, a treasure trove of fascinating biology, biochemistry, and genetics awaiting resourceful and inquisitive researchers.  What is missing is the large research community, a critical mass, that drives new scientific discovery.  In my field, for example (that would be mRNA 3′ end formation in plants), there must be at least ten times as many people working on the basics in animals and yeast as in plants.  The same is true for every other aspect of basic biology in plants.  And again, from my own experience, it is safe to say that there are unique aspects in plants that cannot be teased out of, or extrapolated from, knowledge gained from research in the usual model systems. We need more, many more, basic plant scientists.

One has to wonder – given the President’s seeming intent to trim spending in part through cuts in ag subsidies, is it possible that the administration is lumping all ag spending under the “subsidy” umbrella?  Does the administration think that other agencies (NSF, DOE) may pick up the slack when it comes to plant science research?  And where were/are the USDA operatives in all of this?  Did they not advocate for more basic research?

Just wondering …