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Corporate funding aids university research discoveries

July 24, 2012
By Craig Beyrouty

Most people understand that university research leads to new knowledge and new ideas that drive innovation, economic well-being and quality of life.

Craig BeyroutyDiscoveries arising from university research are critical because they are rigorously reviewed by peers in the public sphere and are available for widespread societal benefit.

A great example comes from Colorado State University’s Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program. Our CSU wheat scientists have worked for 50 years to develop wheat varieties that perform successfully in Colorado’s harsh climate and resist the region’s pests and disease.

The result is clear: Farmers plant about 2.5 million acres of wheat in Colorado each year, and about 65 percent of this acreage is planted in varieties developed at CSU. Our Colorado wheat sector is so successful — tallying $500 million in annual revenue — that wheat is the state’s No. 3 commodity, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

That tells you CSU wheat research is important to farmers, rural communities — and the entire state.

The organizations funding our wheat research understand this benefit. They include the Agricultural Experiment Station, a unit within land-grant universities that receives state and federally appropriated funds and also administers funds from external sources, such as Colorado Wheat.

Here and elsewhere, the federal government is the source of most funding for university research. In fact, federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture, supply about 60 percent of funds for university research and development in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation.

Other sources of funding

At CSU, research expenditures total more than $300 million each year, making us one of the nation’s standout public research universities. About 70 percent of those expenditures is federally funded.

What are other sources of research funding? They include state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, foundations and corporations.

I recently was asked if funding from the private sector, including corporations, could influence the results of agricultural research, leading to potentially biased findings of questionable benefit to society. The inquiry has also arisen nationwide, and with some frequency, in recent years.

It prompted me to take a close look at CSU’s agricultural research data.

In keeping with a national trend, the proportion of CSU’s expenditures on agricultural research provided by federal agencies has incrementally declined in the past decade, from about 49 percent in 2000-01 to 43 percent in 2010-11.

At the same time, industry funding of agricultural research has inched upward, from just more than 6 percent of total spending on agricultural research in 2000-01 to about 8 percent in 2010-11.

Does private sector support influence research results, create conflict-of-interest — or the appearance of conflict-of-interest?

Ensuring integrity of research results

CSU and other public research universities are aware of the potential bias, and we take a number of important steps to ensure the integrity of our research results.

When the university enters into a research contract with a private entity, the university retains the right to publish the data produced. That means research results are subject to rigorous academic review that would expose any questionable results. The faculty who conduct the research have control of the content of the publication.

CSU assesses the potential for conflict-of-interest among its researchers through its annual disclosure process, and its research administration continually reviews projects to ensure they meet the highest ethical standards.

CSU has tremendous pride in its research mission and activity, so we are diligent in our responsibilities and stewardship.

Seeking support

So why do CSU and other public research universities seek funding from industry groups and corporations?

Our research and discovery efforts lead to innovations that ensure competitiveness, economic health and societal well-being. Many fundamental understandings and science-based solutions are translated to the public through the private sector.

In the past two decades, public research universities nationwide have seen declines in state and federal support. This trend spurs universities and individual scientists to seek funding from other sources so that we can continue research efforts.

Moreover, we would collaborate with the private sector regardless of the federal budget because these partnerships aid in research dissemination, workforce development and economic vibrancy.

Here are a few examples of corporate-funded agricultural research projects now under way at CSU:

  • Researchers are testing ways to successfully revegetate land disturbed by oil extraction.
  • We are examining crop-rotation strategies to boost soil fertility in an organic dairy setting.
  • Scientists are investigating the performance of dryland corn hybrids in low-rainfall environments.

Our industry partners understand that agriculture — and innovations in agriculture — are more important now than ever before.

That’s because agriculture must address the grand challenge of our times: feeding a booming global population that will surpass 9 billion people in our children’s lifetimes, while conserving environmental resources.

We need support from all sectors of the economy to tackle this challenge.

Craig Beyrouty is the dean of CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contact: Coleman Cornelius
Phone: (970) 491-2392