Budget cutters whack at researchers

  • Microscope drawing

    Diane Sylvain
  • Jay Brunner raises an army of parasitic wasps to combat the leafroller

    Lisa Jones
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Sexy weapon thwarts bugs.

Jay Brunner is hunched over a microscope, watching a tiny wasp crawl over a bright-green caterpillar called a leafroller. The ant-sized wasp has laid about 10 eggs on the leafroller's dense web. When the young wasps hatch, the entomologist explains, they'll feed on the larva's body fluids, injecting enzymes that will dissolve its internal organs.

This ghoulish scene being played out at Washington State University's Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee fills Brunner and other researchers with optimism. The wasp is a promising tool for controlling the leafroller - the second most costly pest in Washington's apple industry. The leafroller is named for its habit of rolling up leaves, but it damages the apple by eating its skin.

Brunner is a member of a skeleton crew of about two dozen scientists working to secure the future of the state's fruit growers. The Wenatchee research station, which has long been the state's fruit growers' major source of applied research, is the base of operations for about six of them. This is the same number the research station had 25 years ago, when the apple crop was about one-third of this year's projected size, and when irrigation, fertilization and pest control were much simpler.

"WSU has diminished in firepower tremendously," says George Ing, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, an industry group which is quadrupling its financial support of tree fruit research over a four-year period. "It's been a real war just to keep them alive. They haven't expanded to meet the needs, and they should have. Before this commission was created in 1969, there was virtually no industry funding of research. In 1969 we harvested 29 million boxes of apples. This year we're going to have about 100 million boxes, and WSU has not grown an ounce."

While the university pays for the infrastructure at Wenatchee - salaries, building space, test tubes - officials are quick to acknowledge industry's pivotal role in financing the research itself: "The only way we can continue the program is those external grants and contracts," says Jim Zuiches, former director of Washington State's ag research station.

The legislature has cut funding to Washington State ag researchers and extension agents by 9.5 percent in the last four years, and more cuts are expected. Two years ago, legislators even discussed the possibility of severing the research and extension arms of the university entirely.

Tree fruit research is doing much better than other areas of ag research at Washington State. The university has shielded it from the cuts that have sheared faculty from other areas of agricultural research. In the last couple of years, two berry researcher positions have been dropped, the animal science department has taken heavy cuts, and the poultry research division has disappeared entirely. Still, the tree fruit industry's needs aren't being met by the university.

The legislature's attitude toward agricultural research is partly due to the fact that Washington is a state divided: The Cascades separate its agricultural, sparsely populated east side from the coastal region, home to most people and those with most political clout.

"The people on the east side know what we're doing," says one Washington State researcher. "The people in Seattle don't give a flying you-know-what about what we're doing. What they care about is getting from one end of Interstate 5 to the other to get their paycheck at the end of the week. You can't blame them. It's demographics."

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in keeping agricultural research on its feet is the galloping cost of supporting scientists. This increase has far outpaced the modest increases in state and federal funding for agriculture nationwide in recent years. In 1981, it cost $140,000 a year to support a government-funded researcher. Ten years later the cost was $264,000 - an increase attibuted to inflation, salary raises and the increased sophistication of instrumentation. This has taken its toll. More than 400 research positions at land-grant university experiment stations were lost between 1990 and 1993 - a drop of about 6.5 percent. Federal scientists have fared no better: At the USDA's Yakima Agriculture Research Laboratory in Washington, which conducts research on tree fruits and other crops, the number of scientists has dropped from 16 to seven in the last decade.

And while the federal government will likely increase its support for research on alternatives to pesticides in the near future, state support for agricultural research has flattened since 1989. Once the figures are adjusted for inflation, the decline was nearly 7 percent nationwide between 1990 and 1993.

"There isn't an experiment station in the country that isn't struggling," says Joe Kunsman, director of academic programs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

It is getting harder and harder for land-grant colleges to fulfill their traditional role. With scanty support, they are working to keep an increasingly complicated agricultural industry on its feet. In Washington and elsewhere, the pressure is mounting to shift the load from taxpayers onto agriculture itself. Indeed, private support for agricultural research is on the increase nationwide: During the 1980s, it increased its share of the pie from 16 percent to 19 percent, a larger increase than from any other source.

The trend raises the question: When is it appropriate for industry to foot the bill, and when is it appropriate for the public to do so? The public should pay when the main beneficiaries are other than the growers, suggests William Lockeretz, the director of the Center for Agriculture, Food and Environment at Tufts University in Massachusetts and a longtime observer of agricultural trends. "A great deal of agricultural research benefits consumers, the environment and resource conservation ... It's not reasonable for us to expect growers to (fund) that."

An example of this is the slight reduction in the use of pesticides by farmers since the early 1980s. Lockeretz attributes much of this reduction, as well as better soil conservation practices among farmers, to publicly funded research. "Agricultural research is often a place where well-spent public money pays the public back manyfold," he says.

Zuiches points out that keeping rural communities on their feet is another good use of public ag research dollars.

"The fact is that 85 percent of the farmers in most states are relatively small-scale," he says. "For those people to stay in the business it's in the best interest of the state to provide some of the research that underpins their survival. In Washington, most of the berry farmers are small folks; they provide the green belt around the cities."

Another benefit of agricultural research done in the public arena is that it will stay public. For all their unwieldiness, inertia and expense, universities place a high priority on access to information and communication among scientists. The much-maligned "publish or perish" credo that keeps academics holed up and away from the public yields journal articles that constitute a public body of knowledge.

Private industry has different priorities. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission hired its own scientist - plant pathologist Peter Sanderson - a year and a half ago. Ing can think of better for things for Sanderson to do than writing and editing academic papers.

"We want him working," says Ing. "We want him to do research that can be immediately applied to industry for use." Ing is also somewhat protective about the research that's done in Washington. "If this is Washington money, and our fruit is in Washington, maybe our scientists shouldn't be funding the knowledge for the industry outside the state. At least people would like to have a couple of years of use of it before it's used elsewhere."

But Sanderson - whose budget this year is $150,000, slightly more than half of what it costs to keep a government scientist in business - maintains that if he can find the time to publish in academic journals, he will. He received his doctorate from University of Wisconsin and did postgraduate work at Oregon State University.

"It's necessary to disseminate information," he says. "If you don't disseminate it, you'll constantly be reinventing the wheel. For my training, publishing is only finishing the job. If you haven't published, you haven't finished."

Sanderson takes pains to maintain collegial relationships with Washington State scientists: "Not only does the university have the opportunity to get money from the industry, but they have the opportunity to get some of their work done through me, because I'll cooperate with them."

He predicts scientists working for industry will become more common. "All the state legislatures are pulling back (on funding agricultural research in land-grant colleges)," he says. "It's recognized that relationships with industry ... are extremely important."

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