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2008 William H. Hatch Lecture

William H. Danforth is Chancellor Emeritus and Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Washington University, St. Louis, MO. He is a director of the board of trustees of the Danforth Foundation and a trustee of the American Youth Foundation. Danforth is also chairman of the board of directors of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and co-chairman of the board of directors of Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

"Imagining William Henry Hatch Today,"

I am honored to have been asked to give the William Henry Hatch Lecture at this annual meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

William Henry Hatch (1833-1896), congressman and long time chairman of the Committee on Agriculture is honored more than 100 years after his death by this lecture, by a statue in Hannibal, Missouri, by graduate fellowships at the University of Missouri and by eleven Hatch Halls spread around the nation.  He is remembered for wise and farsighted legislation that laid the groundwork for spectacular advances in agriculture that changed for the better first America and then the world.

Hatch was born when the population of the United States was 13 million, a little over 4 percent of today’s number; 70 percent of the nation’s labor force was engaged in farming.

But America was changing, thanks in large part to innovations in technology and education that made farms more productive and improved both the life of the farmer and the diet of Americans.  In his lifetime the McCormick reaper was patented.  William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, described its incredible effect – thanks to the reaper “the line of civilization moves westward thirty miles each year.”  The railroads came shortening the time of transit between farm and market and spreading knowledge of the reaper.  The Morrill Land-Grand College Act was signed by President Lincoln in 1862.  Despite the wrenching changes of the Civil War, in which Hatch served, advances in agriculture were leading America into an as yet undreamed future.

Hatch championed legislation that made the most of the opportunities and challenges of his day, reorganizing and elevating the Department of Agriculture, but he is best known for the far reaching Hatch Act of 1887 that provided federal aid to states for Agricultural Research Stations, linked closely to land grant institutions.

We honor Hatch today because he was, to use Ibsen’s phrase, “in league with the future.”  He adapted governmental structures to meet the new opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing world.  In so doing he expanded the role and strengthened the Land Grant Institutions allowing them to serve more effectively.  In turn the nation awarded those institutions respect and provided support, political and financial.  The nation does tend to award those who do good for it.  Our challenge today is to do as well by the future so as to be remembered in 2129 for our good works.

More about that later, but first a brief detour to explain why I am here, since I am an expert in neither agricultural science nor politics.  My background is in medicine, biochemistry and administration of a private university.  I have served on various committees and councils of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  I have worked with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and co-chaired a committee to study the balance between basic and applied research.  Thus, I have considerable experience with science and science policy.

About 25 years ago I became enthralled with the potential of fundamental plant science.  It was then clear that in my field, medicine, advances in fundamental biology including genetics, cell biology, immunology and molecular biology were leading to spectacular benefits.  Polio vaccine is an example.  It seemed obvious that the same scientific advances could be applied to plants with beneficial results.  Improving agriculture seemed to me to have something in common with improving the treatment of cancer, for plants use basically the same chemistry and the same genetic code as all living things including humans.  The goal is to understand the biologic processes of a living system so that one can change them. If done wisely, great benefits to humanity can follow.

The Green Revolution (GR) had already demonstrated the benefits of science applied to crops.  We dreamed of using more modern science to do something perhaps as important.  For what could be more important than plants?  They are the basis of all life on the surface of the earth; they are important to human health; they are key to feeding the world and preserving the environment; they are vital to a successful American economy and important to our balance of trade; they are our hope for more bio-based products including bio-fuels.  I could go on and on, as you here would know as well as I.

After my retirement in 1995, I helped start in St. Louis a plant science center that would engage in fundamental research, not just for its own sake, but with the goal of practical benefits.  Our Center was developed in partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto, the Universities of Illinois and Missouri, Purdue, and Washington University.

Then, belatedly, I looked at the federal support of research in plants and more broadly in agriculture, and learned some worrisome things that I will report on shortly.

I spoke with our Missouri Senator, Kit Bond.  With his encouragement, along with that of Senators Richard Lugar, Tom Harkin and others, the Agricultural committees of Congress asked for a study of whether something like a national institute or institutes devoted to science might be helpful to agriculture.

I chaired a task force appointed by Agriculture Secretary, Ann Veneman.  Members are shown in Table 1.  Fortunately, the others all knew more about agriculture than I.

Our Task Force began with certain assumptions:

  1. Agriculture is critical to our national interest.
  2. Innovation is key to agricultural superiority and competitiveness.
  3. Fundamental scientific research is critical to innovation.
  4. Publicly funded research will be necessary to take full advantage of the opportunities.

This last assumption arose from our understanding that industry would fund research that would be of direct benefit to the corporation in the time required to make the investment payoff.  Funding would be less likely for long-range research, for research that would benefit equally other companies, or primarily the environment, or primarily poor countries that could not afford the resulting products.  Depending on industry alone would be like depending on the great pharmaceutical companies alone to protect the health of Americans.  No sensible person would want to do that.

Here are some of the worrisome findings that we reported.

First, [Table 2] the USDA budget for research was 7.4% or 1/13th that of the NIH -- $2 billion vs. $27 billion.  The NSF was about $5 billion.  I love biomedical research.   I should like to see it grow, but the balance is radically wrong.  I can argue that if one wants to do good for the American people and for the world, agriculture is just as important as medicine and probably more so.  The imbalance has not always been so great.  [Table 3]  In 1984 the USDA expenditures for research were not 7.4 but 21 percent of the NIH.  If that ratio held today, the research budget of the USDA would be $5-6 billion, well over twice what it is now.

The annual growth rates over a 20 year period are shown in Table 4.

We learned further that only a small fraction (under 10%) of the $2 billion USDA expenditures were for competitive, peer-reviewed projects, a mechanism that had been so successful for the NIH and the NSF.  The NIH was spending about $150 on peer reviewed grants for every dollar spent by the USDA.  Moreover, the competitive grants of the USDA were smaller than those of the NIH or NSF [Table 5] and generally awarded for shorter durations [Table 6] so that they are less attractive to scientists.  In addition, the overhead on grants was artificially low so that deans and university presidents preferred that their faculties do research funded by the NIH or NSF.  This is no way for agriculture to tap into all the skills of American scientists; in fact, this is a way that avoids doing so.

Our committee recommended [Table 7] a National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) within the USDA that would do no science, but rather make grants for fundamental research in agriculture.  All proposals would receive a rigorous scientific review before being considered for funding.  We recommended a council made up of both scientists and stakeholders to advise the director.  The members would meet face to face to work out policies and priorities that would best serve the nation.  Such councils have worked well for the NIH.  NIFA should be headed by an accomplished scientist appointed by the president.  We recommended that NIFA be funded with new money since agricultural research had for long been under-funded.  We suggested $200 million for year one growing to $1 billion in year five.  (I believe that the promise of great gains justified this relatively modest investment out of the total USDA budget of over $100 billion).

We concentrated on fundamental research for several reasons.  The USDA has done and is doing great things for the American people.  It supports many valuable and essential studies and services, but there was one important area in which both the NIH and the NSF managed better.  That is fundamental research.

Here are our reasons for this belief.  First, both agencies put out Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that invite all qualified scientists to apply.  Thus, they tap into the best thinking in the nation.  It is a free enterprise, come one, come all, approach.  I remind you that, unlike much agricultural research, fundamental research is not place-bound.  It can be done everywhere.  Second, both the NIH and the NSF use scientists to help set policies and make decisions.  As always, when federal funds are involved, political leaders set the overall policies, guidelines and funding, but with the NIH and the NSF, the political leaders tap into the best scientific thinking and rely on scientists to make scientific decisions.  Qualified scientists review proposals so that external grants go to quality science.  Only in the relatively small National Research Initiative (NRI) did the USDA follow such policies.  There are historic reasons for the traditions of managing agricultural research.  Federal support began when most legislators had farming experience and could understand the advances in both technology and in farming practices, such as contour plowing, grafting, irrigation, etc.  Moreover, agriculture was and remains place-bound.  The needs of Maine are different from those of Florida; the needs of Iowa different from those of California.  The old system worked for a while, but times change.  Today the average legislator cannot understand the details of genetics or molecular biology.  Moreover, the fundamental research on cells or model organisms is not place-bound; it can be carried out anywhere.  Third, Agricultural research is seriously underfunded.  Fourth, as I have pointed out earlier, scientists engaged in agricultural research prefer grants from other federal agencies.  And their institutional leaders feel the same.

Our committee is not the first to point out shortcomings in the management of agriculture research or to recommend that the USDA change and put more emphasis on competitive funding.  Committees of the National Academy of Science (NAS) have been making such recommendations since 1972, thirty years ago, but little has happened.  We decided that we should try to encourage action.  So here I am still carrying the message.

A National Institute for Food and Agriculture was created in the 2008 Farm Bill.  It is not exactly as we recommended, but the legislation is a very positive step forward.

Thus far, I have talked about William Henry Hatch, and about how I came to be here.  I then described our proposed NIFA.  Now I should like to speak to a key question – What is at stake?

A lot is at stake.  The risks and the rewards are far greater than in the time of William Henry Hatch.  I will emphasize three challenges.

The first is a competitive one.  We would like America to continue to lead the world in agriculture by innovating more rapidly than other nations, some of whom have favorable climates, cheaper land and cheaper labor.  We need increased productivity with fewer inputs, lower costs and new value-added products.  Science alone is not enough, but science is a necessary component of innovation and, hence, of success.

Unfortunately, we cannot take for granted scientific leadership, for others are also chasing that goal.  In the last twenty years, China and India have doubled their share of global agricultural research.  They know, as do we, that scientific leadership remains essential for long range success.  Our goal to remain the best is reasonable.  Our nation starts with many assets.  We should not goof it up.

Now I will turn to two more challenges.

The first is ancient, better nutrition, or in many parts of the world, to hold at bay hunger and starvation, scourges that have plagued humankind since we first appeared on earth.  Even tonight 900 million people will go to bed hungry.  And on this single day perhaps 16,000 children will die of causes related to hunger and malnutrition.

The second challenge is relatively new; preserving and enhancing the environment so that our great grandchildren will inherit a livable earth.

This challenge is new even though throughout our time on earth, we humans have been changing the environment that sustains us, usually for the worse.  In the past, however, environmental degradation, even when disastrous, has been local; other parts of the globe have gone on as before.  No longer.  Now we humans are all bound together on one spaceship earth.  There are so many of us and we have so much power that together we are, for the first time, threatening the environment of the whole planet all at once.

These two challenges, feeding the world and saving the environment, belong together; they are really part of a single challenge.  That is to produce enough food and other products including, notably, renewable bio-fuels in a way that is sustainable indefinitely, in other words – we must supply the world with food, energy and other products without ruining the environment.

We have an inspiring example.  The GR that began in the 1950’s used the science of that day to advance both causes.  Norman Borlaug and his colleagues trebled the crop yields per acre, ending the recurrent famines that plagued for centuries Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  It is estimated that the GR saved from starvation 1 to 1.5 billion people.  At the same time it preserved the environment.  If it were not for the GR’s increase in productivity, there would be little room left on earth for anything but growing food.  Humans would have encroached on and be speedily destroying tropical and temperate forests, wetlands, parks and even golf courses.

The amazing success of the GR led many to assume that we would always be able to go to the grocery store and find food that was plentiful, nutritious, delicious, safe and very cheap.

But we humans never fix problems once and for all, especially today, when modern history is like a film running at fast-forward, that we can’t slow down, and there is no button marked “pause” or rewind.”  Opportunities open and close again almost before we know they are there.  The GR is only a couple of generations old, but history has moved on.  Already food prices are rising; this year 30 nations have experienced hunger riots.  A lot has happened in the brief few decades since the height of the GR.  World population has more than doubled.  Chinese and Indians are asking for more and better food for their people and for their livestock.  Urbanization continues to encroach on farm lands.  We are producing renewable bio-fuels from the same land that grows food.  And the GR uses too much fresh water and fertilizers.  The world cannot go on like this without facing a potential calamity.  We need what M.S. Swaminathan has called an “Evergreen Revolution,” an agricultural revolution that will provide the food, fuel, raw materials and fiber in a manner that will allow the land to go on producing, generation after generation.  A tough order, but a noble goal.

Fortunately, we have an ally – Modern science and technology, which can be viewed as organized human intelligence and ingenuity on an unprecedented scale, also move evermore rapidly.  Today our scientific, technological and educational tools for setting things right are, to the tools of our ancestors, what a spaceship to the moon is to our own two feet.  We can go farther and we can go faster than ever before.

The special task of all of us who care about the future of humankind must be to work individually and through the combined strength of our institutions to help agriculture become more productive and sustainable, and to do so very quickly.  The special role for my passion, fundamental research, is to enlarge understanding of how plants and livestock really work at the molecular and cellular levels, and how they can be modified better to supply the world with food, fuel and other products, while at the same time preserving our life-sustaining environment.

We have some favorable wind at our back.  Unlike 10 years ago, people all over the world are recognizing the challenges.  The world is catching on.

I began by talking about William Henry Hatch and how he responded to the challenges of his time, thereby helping lay the groundwork for future successes.  I have shared with you my conviction that the challenges of our time are greater and more urgent than they were in his day.  We must meet these challenges as Hatch and his colleagues met theirs.

My specific interest is in strengthening the role of science.  I am not under the illusion that science alone can fix the problems I have been discussing.  I am sure, however, that they will not be fixed without first rate science.  For over 30 years our national policies have not been making the best use of science.  Our natural human inertia, our sticking to the old ways, our concentration on guarding our own turf, have slowed advances in agriculture.  Our methods of operating have given other nations a chance to gain and to try to pass us by in production and in science. 

In addition, the failure to adopt the most modern ways of stimulating discovery and innovation has undermined confidence and trust in agricultural science.  My explorations have taken me to many federal agencies, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  Their people have read the reports coming from the NAS and our report.  They do not trust with generous funding science decided through political processes without adequate scientific input.  Many in Congress feel the same way.  If one wants to understand the lagging budgets for ag research, one needs look no further than this loss of confidence.  OMB is especially important because that agency prepares the nation’s budgets.

The USDA, NASULGC and all interested groups should be working to bring more scientific wisdom into the decision making that affects agricultural research.  It is in the national interest and in the interest of your institutions and your scientists.

Change is hard.  The unknown is always scary.  Short term interests are always real.  Next year’s budget has to be met.  But as the last thirty years of stagnating budgets have shown, not to change is risky, too.

I honestly believe that in the long run we and our institutions will be rewarded for our contributions to the nation and the world and penalized for not joining in such an important movement.

What can we do specifically, right now?  Encourage the bringing of more scientific thinking into Congress and the USDA at the top levels.  America should have a Secretary of Agriculture who understands the promise of science; the new director of NIFA should be an accomplished and respected scientist, who reports directly to the Secretary; (I notice in passing that the director of the NIH during the time it doubled its budget was a Nobel Laureate.)  The next Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics, Gale Buchanan’s successor, will need his understanding of all of agriculture with a special emphasis on science and the realization of its benefits.

All of us could draw on the experience with the NIH.  Their supporters have learned to avoid public fights over how the budget of the NIH is spent.  Rather the whole community gets behind the support for total resources for the NIH.  The whole community means the cancer society, the heart association, those working on AIDS, the public and the private universities and research centers, the pharmaceutical industry, and physicians organizations.  To a remarkable extent, they speak with one voice.  A voice that has been very effective.  We who support agriculture should do the same.

I hope and I believe that we can all work together to address our challenges.  If we do, I can foresee that a hundred years from now, people around the world will say, “Thank goodness for America.  Those old guys saw the risks and went to work.  Because of them and others who shared the same vision, we are living well today and look forward to a sustainable future.”  And I hope that those associated directly with agriculture add, “Thanks to science we have great jobs in a successful economy.”