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Perfect Storm Would Be Disastrous for Ag Research, Extension

Posted by | February 21, 2011

When Hurricane Grace collided with a tropical cyclone off the Atlantic Coast in 1991, the result was what experts called “the perfect storm.” It created 70 mph winds and 30-foot waves, and a movie starring George Clooney.

Today we are seeing a “perfect storm” of similar proportion building with respect to agricultural research funding the Washington State. The confluence of major funding shifts at both the state and federal level could cripple the ability of Washington State University to conduct the agricultural research so critical to keeping the state’s largest industry competitive and profitable.

Currently, funds from a variety of sources support WSU’s agricultural research and extension activities – endowments, gifts, and industry grants, for example. By far, though, the largest sources are federal grants and formula funds, as well as state appropriations.

At the federal level, officials are debating whether to roll back current budgets for agricultural research to FY08 levels for partnership programs such as the Hatch and Smith-Lever funds. WSU currently receives approximately $8.2 million in those formula funds and would stand to lose $576,000 if they are reduced to ’08 levels. Proposals coming out of Washington D.C. this week might elevate these cuts to levels well in excess of $1 million.

Federal officials also are considering eliminating all congressional directed spending for special research grants – approximately $3.6 million for WSU this fiscal year. Although these grants are not “earmarks” in the traditional sense of the word, they are being lumped into that same category, making them highly vulnerable to cutting. Combine that with proposed reductions in the federal competitive grant programs and two of the most important sources of funding available to WSU ag researchers may evaporate.

The same kinds of threats are emerging for the state funds for agricultural research at WSU. The $21.5 million the university receives from the state for agricultural research continues to be targeted for elimination or reduction year after year. To date, it has not suffered cuts larger than the rest of the College of Agricultural, Human, or Natural Resource Sciences, or WSU in general. However, we continue to be concerned about proposals to reduce the state agricultural research allocation in both the current fiscal year and the coming biennium. In addition to this targeted reduction, large decreases to WSU’s general budget will surely adversely affect ag research and Extension. In fact, if the biennial budget resembles the Governor’s budget, WSU would lose over half of its state funding in four years (2008 to 2011).

What will be the impact on our programs as these proposed reductions play out? To name a few:

  • A smaller research faculty and staff.
  • A smaller Extension presence at the local level.
  • Our partners (e.g., commodity commissions) will be asked to pay a larger share of research costs.
  • There will be diminished effort directed toward local issues and problems, resulting in reduced technologies and practices available to our producers.
  • Washington agriculture will be exposed to increased risk from disease, pests, and other vagaries.
  • Fewer graduates will be available for employment in the food and agricultural sector.

In general, the bottom-line impact of the reductions described above is the dismantling of one of the finest agricultural research mechanisms in the country. WSU plant sciences faculty are ranked among the most productive in the world. This past year alone, faculty competed for and won nearly $50 million in extramural funds for agricultural research. The estimated economic impact of WSU agricultural research exceeds $200 million annually.

Overall, if the “perfect storm” becomes a reality, it means the loss of hundreds of jobs and literally tens of millions of dollars of lost economic impact in Washington and beyond.

Washington State is one of the leading agricultural powerhouses in both the United States and internationally. In part, that is due to its progressive and supportive investment in the scientists researching and developing the technology and scientific solutions necessary to remain competitive and profitable. Destroying the industry’s primary research and development arm leaves it competing in the world market with a dramatic and costly disadvantage.

More information about WSU’s budget situation is available at