May 23, 2009
It isn’t easy being a land grant university these days, especially when your Ag School depends so heavily on industry money for support. Sadly, fear of losing funding from their biggest money stream is limiting the types of research many scientists are undertaking at agriculture schools across the country. Now there are accusations that the funding fear may have crept its way out of Washington State University’s Ag School and has taken hold in, of all places, WSU’s Common Reading Program.
Months after WSU’s Common Reading Committee selected “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan as this year’s thought provoking book, the university announced that it decided not to hand out the nearly 4,000 copies it had already purchased to its incoming freshman during WSU’s orientation sessions and cancel the reading program altogether. The first official reason offered earlier this month was, “given the circumstances currently facing our institution, changes must be made to the program.” Through an email sent to faculty yesterday, WSU’s president, Dr. Elson Floyd, and his provost, Dr. Warwick Bayly, stated that those “circumstances” are the university’s financial woes. The email goes on to say:
This is just one of scores of hard decisions that have been made in recent weeks to address the $54 million cut in our biennial state appropriation. As you well know, this austerity has forced us to reduce or eliminate a number of programs and positions. Reducing the scope of this program — including not bringing the author to campus and avoiding speaker’s fees and travel, facilities, and event costs — will save an estimated $40,000.
However, faculty members were quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education questioning the fiscal excuse:
Jeff Sellen, an instructor at the university who sat on a committee in charge of implementing the reading program, says members of that panel were told “we could not call it a ‘common reading.’”
“I think that was important because it would be less official and would maybe fly underneath the radar,” he says. “It was obvious that it was political.”
He says that there was never a substantial budget for events around the book—certainly not enough to bring in Mr. Pollan as a speaker—so he dismisses the idea that there was a financial rationale for the changes in the program.
For those of you who don’t know, Pollan’s book reveals the serious problems that our broken industrially based food system poses for the environment, our health and our own morality. It looks like the book may have hit a little too close to home for one of WSU’s Board of Regents. The Spokesman-Review quoted Regent Francois X. Forgette as saying his fellow Regent Harold Cochran “had read the book and raised concerns.” According to a release from Governor Chris Gregoire’s office, Cochran is a third generation wheat rancher and is a member of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and the Walla Walla County Wheat Growers.
Regardless of what led to the decision, the ensuing controversy has spotlighted serious concerns regarding the influence Big Ag has over large public institutions that are entrusted to further academic research in food and agricultural sciences. I witnessed this influence first hand while serving as the communications director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP). During our hunt for researchers to author the Commission’s technical reports we hit many roadblocks at the nation’s best agriculture schools. We had to vet more than 200 academics just to fill 12 research positions. Most were disqualified because of their ties to corporate funding and major conflicts of interest. There were also several incidences when researchers were either bullied by industry representatives or literally told their participation with the Commission research could affect future funding opportunities for their university.
According to the Wall Street Journal a National Science Foundation report found that industry funds two-thirds of research and development and slightly less than a third of research funding comes from the federal government. To make things more complicated, to be eligible to receive money from the USDA schools are mandated to match research grants from alternate sources, whether it’s from states, nonprofits, foundations or commercial companies. I spoke with several land grant school researchers who said they often feel trapped and asked the Commission to help them find more funding with less strings attached.
After the Commission released its final report in 2008, members of the Bush White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, invited PCIFAP staff to discuss the Commission’s findings. When we discussed the troubling issue regarding the heavy reliance on industry funding, one high level member said, “I thought science was science. Why does it matter who pays for it?” The obvious answer is that industry is not as interested in funding free ranging academic studies of the problems confronting the U.S. food system as it is in development. If land grant universities can’t find more diverse funding sources, I fear that we’ll continue to see more studies like those that focus on animal feed conversion ratios or animal growth rather than the public health implications of using antibiotics and other antimicrobials in food animals or the links between air and water pollution by concentrated animal feeding operations and public health.