Have you ever read an article, attended a panel discussion, or watched a tv show and thought: “I really wish they’d featured an expert” ?
I can’t say if it’s intentional or unintentional, but there definitely seem to be many cases where a panel discussing aspects of agriculture consists of representatives from EWG, UCS, CFS, etc and there might, if we are really lucky, be one person who has some understanding of the science.
One example is of this is an episode of the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC that was about agricultural genetic engineering. Her producers rounded up a celebrity chef, Marion Nestle (known for her dislike of biotech among other things), and Ricardo Salvador of the UCS, which has a stated anti biotech platform. Their pro-science representative was Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and author. Now, Ramez is great, but why didn’t they choose a crop scientist with expertise in biotechnology, an agricultural economist with expertise in consumer preference and labeling, a farmer that uses biotechnology… ?
What if they wanted to find other experts but just didn’t know who to ask? Let’s make it easier for all of those journalists and panel discussion organizers out there to find us.
Fill out the Biotech Experts Form with your information. Encourage your friends and colleagues to share their information, too. Finally, tell people about Biology Fortified’s newest resource* so everyone can be better informed!
*For now, the responses are displayed in a Google Doc, but as we accumulate a good sized list, we will publish the results to a new page on Biofortified: Biotech Experts.
The sweeping cuts in federal spending known as the sequester are already taking a toll on scientific research. Jennifer Fletcher, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley stationed at the USDA-funded Plant Gene Expression Center, faces the sudden challenge of slashing direct research costs by 40 percent.
“I’m paying part of a research associate’s salary… and already as a result of the cuts we’ve had to eliminate that position.” Now Fletcher has less money to spend on supplies and won’t be able to hire new research assistants, post-docs, or support new graduate students for the foreseeable future. When asked how this will affect her lab’s work on stem cells in plant development, Fletcher replied, “by overall slowing the progress of the research, and narrowing the focus.”
Stories like Fletcher’s are becoming common now that the cuts are taking effect in ways that were hard to imagine only weeks ago. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which funds Fletcher’s lab, protected professors’ salaries and indirect research costs like facilities, but left direct research costs, such as personnel and supplies, to take the hit. This explains how agency-wide spending reductions of a seemingly modest 5 percent, pinched actual research by 40 percent.
Most academic plant scientists are feeling the sequester through dimmer prospects for funding by competitive granting agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NSF announced it will trim spending by 5 percent by reducing the number of new grants it awards by approximately 1,000, or about 10 percent. To spare staff and existing obligations, the NSF is leaving young researchers and new projects to bear the brunt of the cuts.
Many fear the sudden funding drought will turn a cohort of young scientists away from research. “For those scientists who are near the threshold of getting funded, this isn’t just some belt tightening. It will completely alter their career trajectory,” explains Timothy Nelson, a plant biology professor at Yale University. “The impact of this seemingly small squeeze can be huge.”
According to recent estimates, the NIH is cutting $1.56 billion from its 2013 budget. While it remains to be seen exactly where the axe will fall, preliminary calculations predict it will issue somewhere between 600 to 2,700 fewer grants. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates the NIH’s R&D budget under sequestration will return to 2002 levels through 2021.
The outlook for basic plant research is bleak, but applied plant research faces even more difficult times. The ARS, which is the USDA’s internal research arm, and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which administers the USDA’s external funding, support most of the applied plant science research in the US. According to the AAAS, the sequester is sending USDA R&D funding back to 1998 levels.
Farmers depend on improved crop varieties developed through UDSA-funded plant breeding work. Since climatic conditions, disease pressure, and quality issues are ever-evolving, cuts to breeding programs put future harvests at risk. “Developing a new variety of wheat typically takes about ten years. The danger of these cuts is that we won’t feel their true effect until many years down the road, at which point it will be too late,” warns Melissa Kessler, Director of Communications for the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Like the proverbial eating the seed corn, today’s slimmer budget comes with a price. Studies show that public spending in agricultural research is a matter of common sense. According to a Council for Agricultural Science and Technology report, average estimated rates of return on investment are near 50%, with an overall benefit-cost ratio of 32 to 1.
When congress will replace sequestration with a more reasonable deficit reduction strategy is still anyone’s guess. The president’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget, however, offers a glimmer of hope. The plan seeks an additional 3.2 percent in funding for the NSF and a 28.7 percent boost to AFRI. Will the president’s intentions bear any resemblance to what comes to pass? Recent history instructs us to be cautious.
Beautiful (and sustainable?) farms in Benton, PA by Thadd Selden via Flickr.
Everywhere I go, I hear farmers argue over the word ‘sustainable’. So much so, that I really want to puke. It gets brought up at policy meetings, on social media sites, and in blog entries. When I hear farmers discussing what it means, I only hear Charlie Brown’s teacher… wha wha wha wha whaa, wha wha wha wha whaaa.
What brought on this latest episode of word fatigue? Yet another article written that only serves to divide farmers into groups. Organic vs conventional, small vs large. It’s like we’re a huge dysfunctional family who can’t even manage a holiday dinner without arguing over an issue that started out so minor, but has now caused family members to quit speaking to each other.
. Continue reading.
At the 2013 Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) Conference, I had the unique opportunity to meet and interview Neal Carter, President of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, makers of the Arctic® Apple, and also attend a protest of the same apple organized by the Organic Consumers Association. I interviewed Mike Durshmid who was leading the protest, and asked him a number of questions.
Both full interviews will be up and available soon, along with more footage of the protest, but now I have a special treat for you. I pitted the statements of the two conflicting sides against each other in a dramatic fashion, to find out who knew what they were talking about. Frank N. Foode™ joined in to award points and declare a winner.
Watch Apple Activists vs Scientists! Continue reading.
Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued their ruling on the Bowman v Monsanto case, siding unanimously in favor of Monsanto. The court rejected Bowman’s arguments that Monsanto’s patent “exhausted” when he purchased seeds from a grain elevator to plant on his farm, and affirmed that the act of growing a crop of seeds is “making” those seeds, and are still covered under patent law. It was a narrow ruling that applied only to seed patents, but it could have long-term implications for other self-replicating technologies. Continue reading.