Wednesday, October 28, 2009

national institute of food and agriculture

The Scientist | Historically short-shrifted by federal funding bodies, academic agricultural research was recently promised redemption: a federal funding agency of its very own that will award competitive grants in a fashion similar to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But will the new agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), be able to put public-sector agricultural science on an equal footing with biomedical research?

NIFA, to be administrated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), was modeled after the government's other large science funding agencies -- the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and especially the NIH. Its mission is to fund research addressing several pressing issues ranging from increasing sustainable food production to bioenergy, food safety, and global climate change while encouraging a renaissance in agricultural research at universities across the country.

Unlike university-based biomedical research, however, which in general has enjoyed robust funding in the recent past, academic agricultural research has withered under a USDA that has traditionally meted out small, non-competitive grants to land grant universities, often at the behest of US legislators trying to direct funds to their home districts or states. The result is an intellectual landscape where much of the knowledge surrounding plant science and agriculture resides not in universities but in industry, locked behind the walls of large agribusinesses.

"We're starting at a different point with NIFA than the one at which we find ourselves at NIH," said Keith Yamamoto, a University of California, San Francisco, molecular biologist who serves as an advisor to the NIH and led the agency's recent efforts to revamp its peer-review process. "The current tilt in the fundamental knowledge about plants, their growth, and development is on the industry side and I would say that it's precisely because of the lack of resources on the public side," he told The Scientist. "It's the basic, fundamental information that needs to be in the realm of the public sector."

The disparity between private and public agriculture research becomes apparent when one considers data from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Lists of recent patent holders in technology classes related to biomedicine -- surgery, drugs, prosthesis, etc. -- are replete with universities, which typically hold patents generated by publicly-funded research. Agricultural patents from 2004-2008, however, are overwhelmingly held by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. In the USPTO's "Multicellular Living Organisms and Unmodified Parts Thereof and Related Processes" technology class (which includes genetically modified organisms), six companies -- Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Monsanto Technology, Stine Seed Farm, DuPont, Syngenta, and Mertec -- were awarded a total of 255 patents in 2008, while the Regents of the University of California system, which held the most patents in that technology class out of any university or university system last year, was awarded only six. Other technology classes relating to agriculture, such as "Plant Protecting and Regulating Compositions" and "Planting," have been devoid of university-held patents over the past 4-5 years.

That balance must be corrected, experts say, and NIFA may be key. "What's been missing so long in USDA is the forcing of competitive research ideas," said Martin Apple, president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents who has been involved with the formation of NIFA since Congress created it in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. "The ace in the hole at NIFA is peer-reviewed research."