BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Land-grant universities, designated by state legislatures or Congress to receive unique federal support, play a huge role in providing scientific breakthroughs for the agriculture industry.
Whether it’s discovering new plant varieties or finding ways to increase the production of agriculture, these institutions of higher learning have been on the cutting edge of important research.
But at least one consumer rights group questions the amount of corporate dollars funneled to these schools for research.
Does it create a conflict of interest?
“We were shocked to see how much of their budget is now coming from food companies or biotechnology companies. Not from public sources,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.- based consumer rights group.
Food & Water Watch released a report, “Public Research, Private Gain”, which examines the amount of private-sector funding going to land-grant universities.
“There should be a lot more disclosure from the schools about who’s paying for research,” said Lovera.
By 2010 private donations accounted for nearly a quarter of the funding for agricultural research at land-grant universities, according to the report.
“Private-sector funding not only corrupts the public research mission of land-grant universities, but also distorts the science that is supposed to help farmers improve their practices and livelihoods,” the report states.
“We see it again and again and again that the biggest cheerleaders in the academic arena are often financially tied to the companies and sometimes that comes out, but it doesn’t always, and we think that’s a real problem in this debate,” said Lovera.
And while Food & Water Watch believes the public mission of land-grant universities has been compromised, Margaret Smith, a researcher and professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, disagrees.
“Nobody can tell me that if the results don’t agree with what they wanted them to be I can’t publish it,” said Smith, an East Aurora native.
Smith tells News 4 Investigates that Cornell University provides a buffer between researchers and private-sector donors.
“They put that firewall between us as researchers and the sources of funding by saying, ‘look, if we’re going to accept money from a private- sector source these are the terms and those terms must include the right to publish regardless of the results,'” she said.
Kathryn Boor, the dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says those firewalls maintain the independence and integrity of the research being done.
“It will be published and put into the scientific literature to enable the world to look at the quality and character of the work that is being supported regardless of the source of funding,” said Boor.
What kind of private dollars are going to research at Cornell University?
“I can tell you that within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, if you look at our entire research portfolio, it’s well under 10 percent,” said Boor.
In 2009, corporations, trade associations and foundations invested $822 million in agricultural research at land-grant schools — compared to $645 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Food & Water Watch.
Lovera thinks strings need to be attached to private funding sources to make sure the right research is being done.
“We have to really take another look and take a step back and figure out what we’re paying for and what we’re getting,” said Lovera. “We need to do more basic research about safety and environmental impacts, and that’s going to take Congress and the agencies really being pushed to reevaluate that whole system.”
Others argue that research universities, whether they be land-grant peers or not, have in place rigorous systems to ensure that work being done by scientists and graduate students is available to the public.
“We have in place an office of sponsored research that works very carefully with our scientists to make sure that our scientists don’t sign agreements that would prevent the sun from shining on work that is being done at the university,” said Cornell’s Dean Boor.
While the University at Buffalo is not a designated land-grant institution, it’s considered one of the premier research-intensive public universities in the country.
“I get funded by the industry, but the thing you have to realize is any good scientist is not going to change their data based upon it,” said Horvath. “I think we’ve again jumped too far in not trusting scientists.”
Horvath says if he wants to publish something, “the industry that funded it can’t control that.”
“The money funds a type of study,” Horvath said. “So it’s not so much the results from the study it’s the type of study done.”
Still, Food & Water Watch believes land-grant universities should be more transparent about their funding sources
“In the short-term, the most immediate thing that can happen is a lot more transparency. And we need that from schools to just make it easier,” said Patty Lovera. “We had to fight with some of these schools to get them to tell us what the funding sources are. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Cornell University’s Margaret Smith says researchers are under pressure to find external funding sources to do the kind of work that serves the public interest.
She says the decline in public dollars has created a dilemma.
Smith said researchers have “no choice” to accept private research funds “if the public is not funding things in the public good, and if the public sentiment is we don’t want to put money into government for these big agricultural research programs.”
In fact, the federal government is increasing research dollars in the 2014 Farm Bill which covers the next five years.
Spending on research will increase by 36 percent for a total of $783 million, according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Included is $125 million in emergency grants to research citrus greening, the bacteria that is killing citrus trees especially in Florida.
Food & Water Watch’s study included spending by the USDA as well as other agencies reported by the Current Research Information Service (CRIS) annual reports.