There was an article published by Mother Jones earlier this week entitled "How Your College is Selling Out to Big Ag". The article can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/J59eD4 I suggest reading not only the article, which is in itself interesting and thought provoking, but also reading through the comments. Some of the comments come from students that are in ag programs in land grant institutions.
This is a contentious issue. That is the long and short of it. Ag companies provide funding to universities for research and other things, such as campus buildings, as the author of the article reports. Many ask "Why?" On the surface it may appear that they are "buying" some sort of way to control research and the universtiy by providing funding that is needed more and more due to less and less funding from the government. Is it what it appears to be? Honestly, I have no answer to provide because I believe that this issue is complex and needs to be looked at from many different angles, but let me just briefly talk about a couple of things and I will leave the opinions to my readers (feel free to post responses).
Research funding is hard to come by and faculty need to publish in order to attain promotion and tenure, as well as support undergrad and graduate student research to train the scientists and teachers of the future. Some faculty members are on "soft" money and need to support themselves with research grants in order to keep their jobs. State funding for the university systems has been cut, at times drastically, over the past few years. Running a university is analogous to running a small city and takes a fair amount of money without resorting to options such as immense tuition hikes, which in turn affects who can afford to go to college. Decreases in funding also has an additional affect on faculty when positions that open due to retirement are not filled and faculty are thus finding themsleves carrying heavier teaching loads, trying to advise more students and seeing no financial return (salary) for their increased work load. (Take a look at what is going on with Cal State University these days.)
Funding from outside sources is needed to provide for active research programs that cater both to a better understanding of the world around us and also as a teaching tool to our next generation. In the arena of research, funding is a welcome input. It used to be that the majority of research conducted at universities came from government funding. As that source of funding has decreased, other sources have become available in the form of private industry. In the philosophy of research, the source of funding shouldn't matter. Having been a faculty member, conducted research, and also trained students/graduate students about research methods I would like to think that research projects are not "colored" by their funding source. The scientific method is in place to provide for good research that is defensible and repeatable. In addition, peer reviewed jounals provide for in-depth reviews of research as well as the methodology used and conclusions reached.
That all said, if one looks hard enough, one will find examples of research that is biased, whether it is in the way the data analysis was conducted or in the determination of what portion of the results are used in technology transfer. Does that mean everyone can be accused of deliberately "coloring" their research? I don't think so and I don't think that type of behavior by researchers is commonplace.
The times of a majority of government-funded research are quickly diminishing and being replaced with private sector funding. The point is that research is still taking place. Do we need to pay closer attention to how results are being disseminated with respect to what the research shows versus what the company would like to advertise? Perhaps. It is a difficult question as well as an emotional one for the general public. There is a mistrust of big business, especially when it comes to our food supply and how agrichemicals affect our health, safety and welfare.
Agricultural research is important in trying to figure out how to feed a growing population on less arable land. I'd like to say that we all just need to trust each other more, but somehow that sounds naive even to my own ears. Let me ask this question though, would you rather that the private companies did all of their own internal research with nothing done by universities? Many companies do conduct their own research studies, and those studies aren't necessarily published in peer reviewed journals. Is that better? Where does that leave our universities? Or, is it better to continue allowing private funding/support to higher education and its institutions and find a better way to ensure unbiased research, results and technology transfer to provide viable options for food production for a growing global population facing a growing number of issues as we look to the future.
As I said at the beginning of this blog post, I don't know the answers. I do think it is imperative that universities continue to be a lead in research. I would also like to think we can all work together for the greater good and our collective future, but there is a lot that gets in the way of that. Unfortunately, the stakes are high no matter how you view this issue.