Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A New Direction for Ag Research

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced that it will be funding research in 5 major areas:
  • Childhood Obesity Prevention
  • Climate Change
  • Food Safety
  • Global Food Security
  • Sustainable Bioenergy
The request for grant applications seem much more specific than usual (e.g. they want plant epigenetic studies, but only with a few select agronomic traits). There also seems to be a special emphasis on plant pathology. I guess the rationale is to concentrate all funded work into a few narrow topics with the hope of maximizing results. Other scientific funding agencies have been trying out this approach recently - encouraging giant, multi-multi-investigator projects focused on big problems like cancer.

It flies in the face of the traditional role of the principal investigator and has a lot of scientists upset and nervous. The competition for funding is getting prohibitively stiff as it is, so professors whose career expertise can't side step into one of these very narrow categories may find themselves up a creek without a research budget.

Ultimately the point of funding research is to produce results, not support fulfilling careers, so as long as increasing top down control of U.S. research doesn't erode the talent base, I guess it's worth a shot. A lot of the dudes at the top are very well respected in the community so they should probably be given some leeway to try this out. I'm encouraged at least that there seems to be an emphasis on getting the taxpayer's money's worth and really making some scientific progress on important problems.

Though I for one definitely won't risk my career on the professor track in this environment.

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