December 22, 2016

Public funding of U.S. ag R&D falls, along with U.S. ag research productivity


By Dr. Larry Reynolds, Taking Stock Contributor

An article appearing in the November 10, 2016 issue of Amber Waves (the monthly online magazine from the USDA’s Economic Research Service) documents and examines the recent decline in U.S. public sector funding of agricultural research and development (Ag R&D) (Clancy et al., 2016).

agR&Dfig1Between 1970 and 2008 the percentage of total Ag R&D funded by the public sector was relatively stable at approximately 50%. By 2013, however, that percentage, even when adjusted for inflation, had fallen to 17% (Fig. 1). In contrast, non-government, private funding increased dramatically, and currently accounts for 76% of Ag R&D (Fig. 1).

At the same time that U.S. public sector investment in Ag R&D was declining, public sector funding in other countries remained stable or increased. The net result was that the percentage of global R&D funded by the U.S. public sector fell from 20-23% between 1990 and 2006 to just 13% by 2013. In fact, by 2011 U.S. public sector spending on Ag R&D was less than that of China, Western Europe and Asia-Pacific (including Canada) and just ahead of India and Brazil (Fig. 2).

agR&Dfig2Another result of reduced public investment in Ag R&D has been a continuation of the decline in the U.S. share of global R&D outputs. For example, in 1996 the U.S. had 30-35% of the world’s agricultural science publications and citations. By 2012, those percentages had fallen by nearly half, to 17-22%.

As the authors point out, there are several important consequences of reduced public sector investment in Ag R&D:

First, “… public and private R&D expenditures tend to fall in different research areas.” Most of the private sector-supported research is in food and feed manufacturing or farm machinery and engineering, both of which are designed to improve products or production methods, thereby increasing profits for their investors. On the other hand, public sector-supported areas comprise most of the research in environment and natural resources; economics, statistics and policy; human nutrition and food safety; and social and community development, all of which have substantial social benefits. And, although both public and private sectors invest in plant and animal research, according to the authors the focus of private-sector funding is on new crops, pesticides and veterinary pharmaceuticals, whereas public-sector funding focuses on more basic research on improved field practices and soil attributes, pest populations, and animal pathogens.

Second, public investment in agricultural research has a substantial return-on-investment, on the order of 40 percent. As the authors argue, “Such large rates of return support the case for robust public sector agricultural R&D.”

Third, perhaps the major challenge in the coming decades will be to produce enough food for the world’s rapidly increasing population, which is expected to reach approximately 11 billion by 2100, a 49% increase compared with the current world population of 7.4 billion. Providing sufficient and nutritious food will require a continued increase in the efficiency of agricultural production as all arable land is now in production (Reynolds et al., 2015). Public funding for Ag R&D has provided and will continue to provide much of the basic knowledge that will enable increased efficiency of crop and animal production. As the authors suggest, “The recent emergence of new pests, diseases, and climate stresses on agriculture—such as citrus greening, California’s drought, and new strains of viruses affecting pigs and poultry—are imposing new demands on the Nation’s basic agricultural science capacities,” which are supported primarily via public-sector funding.

Fourth, if the public support for Ag R&D continues to decline, research infrastructure will erode, as has been well documented for the animal sciences (Roberts et al., 2010). In addition the stature of U.S. Ag R&D within the global research community will continue to decline, potentially hindering our engagement with the global research community both within and outside of agriculture and hampering our ability to provide solutions for the challenges facing U.S. farmers and ranchers.

Read U.S. Agricultural R&D in an Era of Falling Public Funding in the November 102016 issue of Amber Waves.


Clancy M., Fuglie K., and Heisey P. U.S. Agricultural R&D in an Era of Falling Public Funding, Amber Waves, USDA-ERS, Nov-10-2016

Reynolds LP, Wulster-Radcliffe M, Aaron DK, Davis TA. Issue and Opinions: Importance of animals in agricultural sustainability and food security. J Nutr 2015; 145:1377-79.

Roberts, R. M., G. W. Smith, F. W. Bazer, J. Cibelli, G. E. Seidel Jr., D. E. Bauman, L. P. Reynolds, and J. J. Ireland. Policy Forum: Farm animal research in crisis. Science 2009; 324:468-469.

Photo: USDA

Figures 1. and 2. courtesy Dr. Larry Reynolds