Privatizing The Pipeline
What are the consequences of losing publicly funded research?
April 20, 2010
For nearly a century, flower growers have benefited from publicly funded research from USDA and the land-grant university system. As state and federal budgets tighten, these programs are often listed on the chopping block. In other countries the model has changed where there is no more public support for floriculture research. It is all privatized and supported by the floriculture industry. Leading faculty members have told me this could happen in the United States within the next 10 years.
We're also at a point where many iconic industry educators are ready to retire. Several who come to mind who are of retirement age include Terril Nell and Jim Barrett at the University of Florida, Paul Nelson at North Carolina State University and our own Allan Armitage at the University of Georgia. Floriculture positions that were filled in the 1970s and '80s are disappearing through attrition.
In my March column, I discussed how floriculture research and Extension programs are being phased out at land-grant universities due to a change in how programs are funded. More faculty members are required to raise money to support projects and programs. Some are engaging geographic or topic-centric communities of growers and allied industry suppliers.
At the same time, we're seeing an increase in research and development programs by the private sector. While it has been normal for companies in crop protection, varieties, fertilizer and growing media to hire technical experts from academia to conduct research and educate grower customers, we are starting to see more research at the grower level.
Costa Farms near Miami hired Kate Santos with a doctorate from the University of Florida to direct its research and development programs. In addition to testing production methods and inputs, extensive field trials rival many at the university level.
Ken Altman of Altman Plants, who has served on the boards of American Floral Endowment and Floriculture Industry Research & Scholarship Trust, has established The Center For Applied Horticultural Research on his property in Vista, Calif. - a nonprofit organization that addresses practical issues nursery and floriculture growers face. The center's director, Lucia Villavivencio, holds a doctorate in plant physiology from North Carolina State University.
While both of these growing operations have reputations for being very generous and sharing with the industry, privatized research normally is for private benefit. Let's flash forward into a future where all floriculture industry research is privatized. What will we have lost?
The research being done most likely would not get published and would not be peer reviewed and held to high scientific standards. The floriculture scientists would not be working together or able to build on each other's discoveries. A select few would have access, but the industry as a whole would not gain. Results would serve corporate interests.
Where will the big scientific breakthroughs come from if the focus is on solving specific production problems? Would DIF (the mathematical difference between day and night temperatures) have been discovered at someone's greenhouse as a way to control plant growth? Would we have been able to or motivated to solve the riddles of photoperiod and vernalization requirements outside the university laboratories?
Where will the future scientists the private sector hires come from if there are no more floriculture programs at the universities? Disciplines outside of horticulture? What would make them choose our industry?
It is more imperative than ever for our industry to reinvest in the future, collectively and individually. Support a university program you believe in. Write a check to American Floral Endowment. Support our industry lobbyists' efforts to secure USDA funds. Keep our pipeline flowing.