Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Can USDA's NIFA be ag's NIH? - Bob Grant's NewsBlog from The Scientist

Commentary on prospects for agricultural and food research after the establishment of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (new name and mission for the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service), looking in particular at the consequences of neglecting publicly available research, and issues for public/private collaborations.

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.

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