Who funds my weed science program?

This is the second post in a series about transparency and funding sources for my weed science research program. An introduction can be found here: On transparency, intimidation, and being called a shill.

MoneySince 2012, around two-thirds of my research funding has come from competitive grants. By competitive grants, I mean projects that I’ve developed and submitted to an agency for funding consideration. Many other people submit applications, too, and the funding agency selects the projects they feel are most worthy. Most of my competitive grants are from public funding sources like USDA-NIFA, state department of agriculture, or the state Agricultural Experiment Station; but some competitive grants are also funded by local and regional grower groups. The remaining 33% of my research funding comes from corporations or companies in the seed and chemical industry. If I were to go back further in time (before 2012), my funding would probably be nearly evenly split between public and private sources, mostly because I’ve gotten better (or luckier) at writing competitive grants over the years. I don’t presume to speak for other applied scientists and how they fund their work, but my experience seems to at least be in line with the overall trend in the US for public and private R&D funding.

If you want to see who, specifically, funds my work, you can find it without having to file a public records request or searching through 2 years of my email correspondence. I list the funding sources in my research reports and publications. In those acknowledgements, you’ll find many of the major seed and chemical companies, including Monsanto, DuPont, and BASF. I’ve never tried to hide it, and I’m not ashamed that I have active collaborations with the agriculture industry.

Why does industry fund some of my research?

It is no secret that I don’t always agree with my colleagues in industry. But the same is true about my academic colleagues. Many of my colleagues in the herbicide and seed industry would be quick to tell you that I’m not opposed to publicly calling them out when we disagree. But even though we don’t always see eye to eye, there are many times when the goals and interests of private and public scientists intersect.

A recent example: proso millet is a small acreage crop, mostly grown in Colorado for the birdseed market. Some acres are grown in the Nebraska panhandle, and a few acres get planted in southeast Wyoming from time to time. It can be a valuable rotational crop for dryland farmers in our region because it is drought tolerant and does not require a very long growing season. The area planted to proso millet is highly variable, ranging from 330,000 to over 700,000 acres in just the last 3 years. As you might guess, a minor crop planted on acreage that can vary nearly 50% from year to year is the opposite of what most “big ag” companies want. They’d much prefer a large, stable market (like corn or soybean, for example). Consequently, nearly all proso millet varieties were bred by public breeding programs, and there are very few pesticides registered in this crop. There’s just very little reason a for-profit company would invest in a crop market that won’t return their investment.

Weed control in proso millet can be challenging because of the lack of herbicides registered for the crop. Dr. Drew Lyon, a cropping systems specialist who was based at the University of Nebraska, and I were interested in finding herbicide options to improve weed control in proso millet. Around the same time, BASF had been developing a new herbicide that was fairly safe when applied to other grass crops. The herbicide (saflufenacil) also provided Lyon2010-prosogood control of many broadleaf weeds that were problematic in proso millet production in our region. We were interested in evaluating this new herbicide for crop safety and weed control in the crop. We spoke with BASF about a potential project, and they agreed to fund some field studies to determine whether their new herbicide could be safely used in proso millet.

The results of the study were somewhat mixed (click image for link to article); the herbicide reduced proso millet stand by 20 to 30%, but as long as seed was planted at a high enough density seed yield per acre was not negatively affected. But the point here is that the research was beneficial to both BASF and our university stakeholders. It provided data to support BASF’s decision to register the herbicide on a new crop, and it also allowed Dr. Lyon and me to evaluate the product so we could give a first-hand recommendation to our local proso millet growers. This type of work wouldn’t be possible without public-private collaborations.

Technology evaluation

Industry collaborations are important to many public researchers for the simple fact that industry develops and provides the technology that our stakeholders use. One of my primary responsibilities as a public-sector weed scientist is to provide science-based information about weed management to my stakeholders (farmers, ranchers, etc.). When a new product or technology is being developed, it is important to determine how it will work in our local conditions. University scientists and extension agents take a leading role in developing these local recommendations. Unlike the proso millet example, much of this “technology evaluation” research may never be published in a peer-reviewed journal. But it is no less important to local & regional stakeholders.

There are many geographical and climatic factors that influence the effectiveness of pesticides and crop traits. Will a herbicide work well in the irrigated, arid Wyoming environment? Does a new herbicide control the important weed species in our region? Is the crop trait effective with our combination of soils and pests? Once the product becomes commercially available, growers will want to know the answers to these questions. If I have never evaluated the new product, it is difficult to provide an honest assessment. If I’ve not tested the new product personally, the growers will be relying solely on information and data supplied by the company selling the technology. Even though I have great respect for many of my colleagues in industry, I’m typically pretty skeptical of their assessment of their own product(s). So to prepare for the launch of a new product and the ensuing questions from my stakeholders, I want to conduct field research and put the new product to the test. And most of the time, the company developing the product is interested in an independent evaluation in different geographies. So it makes sense for the company and the university to work together.

Research is expensive

Field research isn’t free. I have to pay fees to use the land, I need to buy fuel to get to the research station, and pay student labor to help manage the study. I need to purchase plot flags and notebooks and and paper bags and scales and markers and software… and the list goes on. Field research is expensive. A few years ago I added up all the costs associated with my field research program and figured it cost anywhere between $3,000 to $16,000 per field study per year, depending on various aspects like the number of evaluations, data requirements, and size & duration of the study.

I don’t receive a recurring budget from my university to do this type of work. That surprises most people. The public expects land-grant university faculty to provide unbiased information about new ag products, but the public doesn’t provide the funding to obtain and test these new products. Unlike the more sexy sounding genomics or proteomics or other-omics research, there are no competitive grants available to support commercialized product evaluation. Lynn Sosnoskie noted on twitter recently that public funding agencies will often flat out say that industry should fund this type of work.

To be honest, I mostly agree that this type of applied research regarding specific products or technologies should be funded by industry. The company who will receive revenue from the product should be the one footing the bill, not taxpayers. So it makes sense for a company to provide funding to support this type of local evaluation by public scientists. And there are other examples where we’ve made some genuinely interesting discoveries while conducting research sponsored by industry. Sometimes those discoveries are beneficial to the funding company, but not always…

Which brings up another important question: What happens when the results of my research are not favorable for the funding agency? Does the company prohibit me from publishing? Do they refuse to work with me in the future as a punishment? And what about influence? How does the funding I receive from industry influence my work, my opinions, and the research I do? These issues will be addressed in my next post: I am biased and so are you.

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