March 25, 2018

Basic Research Provides Seeds of Technology

Basic research provides seeds of technology

By Penny Riggs

Chair, ASAS Public Policy Committee

In her presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Susan Hockfield emphasized the value of basic research as she talked about transitioning from basic discovery to advanced application that fuels the ambition and innovation required for the U.S. economy to thrive. 

Hockfield called attention to agriculture several times during the address – beginning with the daunting challenges presented by projected world population growth over the next 30 years. She said “We need food, water, healthcare, energy, and all of those things we have to provide in a sustainable way for everyone on the planet in ways that don’t bust the budget.”  She noted that despite Malthus’ predictions in 1798 that world food supply would not be able to support an increasing population, innovation has consistently elevated agricultural productivity to meet the needs of the day. But, how can technology continue to advance fast enough to supply food, water, and care for 10 billion people in the approaching decades?

Citing statistics that more than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II occurred from technological innovations, Hockfield noted that many people still don’t fully appreciate that desired economic growth can never succeed unless basic research is funded to create seeds of technology. She said, “Basic research is inefficient, but it’s the only known route to discovery.”

U.S. research spending to support discovery (as a percentage of gross domestic product) has not kept pace with increases in investment by countries such as China and South Korea, for example, according to recent data compiled by the National Science Board. This trend is especially true for basic research in Animal Sciences. The National Academies’ consensus study report in 2015 reiterated the critical role of animal science research for food security. This report also highlighted the need to revitalize research infrastructure, also detailed in a description of land-grant universities’ $9 billion and growing deferred maintenance backlogs, and discussed in light of an infrastructure package previously promised by President Trump.

In a separate article in Science, Hockfield wrote about institutional leadership that must occur so that “science prevails and continues to flourish.”  This concept is especially true for agricultural research, particularly animal agriculture. Hockfield notes a general fixation on individual achievement, but argues for science as a team sport and calls for a shared responsibility to support and defend the institutions that enable scientific success.  Research and funding for animal agriculture must become a national priority to support U.S. food security and national security. We must work together, actively, so that the research efforts that made agricultural productivity thrive in the U.S. during past decades can continue.  To do this, our agricultural research facilities must be updated and maintained, and basic research in animal agriculture must be supported more aggressively. While biomedical and other areas of science remain important for investment, the value of agricultural research must be elevated.

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