It is a remarkable act of foresight, especially for those surrounded by economic suffering and uncertainty. Washington’s apple and pear growers have voted to double their support for university research. The self-imposed assessment, really a kind of research payroll tax, will provide $27 million for Washington State University over eight years. It will endow science at the university’s Wenatchee and Prosser experiment stations and orchards. The grant is enough to support programs by interest alone, meaning in perpetuity, and could keep 100 employees at work on ways to make more and better food for less.
This is not small matter. Such large private industry donations for public research are rare. The fruit growers’ gift to WSU is the largest ever. It surpasses donations by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and everyone else. “We will multiply these funds in so many ways,” said WSU President Elson Floyd, most likely enjoying a break from his usual glum budget cutting.
We could all learn from the fruit growers’ example. They know that university research, both applied research and the more esoteric investigations into the basics of life, have a direct bearing on their productivity, and therefore their potential profit. Nearly every act of horticulture they undertake, virtually every decision on the growing, handling and storage of their product, was originated or refined by scientists in the public employ, either land-grant universities or the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture. The effect is obvious. Even relatively young fruit growers have seen their productivity multiply in a short span of time, and the quality of their product rise. The research, relayed to growers through universities and their Cooperative Extension agents in the field, has made Washington’s fruit industry the envy of the world, on the cutting edge, profitable while so many other industries falter.
We all could learn, and should learn, because if we don’t we may end up slashing support for basic research and public science while we are slashing everything else. If we do that we accelerate our own national decline and future destitution. Fall behind and we won’t catch up.
For the fruit growers, this may be a preemptive strike. Most public universities have faced drastic budget cuts, particularly WSU, which has seen its state support slashed by more than half. But its College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences has remained more or less whole so far, tree fruit research included. Federal research grants play a huge role, but what of them?
Business provides two-thirds of the research-and-development funds spent in the United States, most for applied technology and refinement that can translate directly to profit. Funding for basic research — investigation of the building blocks that make us what we are — is mostly a government endeavor. The federal government provides more than 57 percent of basic research funding. This is the research from which Nobel Prizes are born, with no initial return on investment for the annual stockholders’ report, but with the potential to change our lives.
Congress has been snipping at the edges of research but hesitates to whack. That may change. President Obama proposes increasing research funding. The House proposes cuts, but is at least selective. Under the last deficit-reduction deal, however, if the so-called congressional super-committee can’t come up with a plan for $1.2 trillion in cuts that Congress will buy, that will trigger automatic cuts across the board by 2013. Research funding will be slashed with all discretionary spending. “Automatic cuts could mean shuttered laboratories and mass layoffs at universities,” said the journal Nature.
Our state’s apple and pear growers are smarter than that. They will reap the benefits, eventually. We all will.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.