Last October, several University of Illinois alums sent a letter “to encourage (me) to … join (them) by making a contribution to a scholarship fund that has a personal meaning to you.”
What, I toss a pebble-sized check into the Big U's pond and that C in Math 111 nearly 40 years ago morphs into a B? No, but the numbers meant to motivate me became a pebble in my shoe.
“When we were freshmen,” my contemporaries wrote, “our in-state tuition was just $248 a semester” because “(a)t that time, the State provided 49 percent of funding to” the university.
“Over the years,” however, “the University has had to rely on raising tuition to offset the declining level of State support, now only 12 percent.”
A generation ago, most states spent generously on their Land Grant universities and ag experiment stations, a nationally integrated system of research and education that was founded, hand-in-glove, with the Department of Agriculture in 1862. For example, 30 years ago two-thirds of all funding for the University of California's Ag Experiment Station came from the state; today California pays but 15 percent.
Overall federal spending for U.S. ag research and development, while not falling, has stagnated in the last decade even as private ag research funding has exploded.
According to a December report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the feds spent $3.8 billion on ag research in 2009 while industry spent a staggering $8.7 billion.
Private R&D is important, certainly, the report rightly notes, but the bulk of the money is “dedicated to commodity and high-value crop production … specifically to the development of improved seeds and crop protection chemicals for the most lucrative global markets … .”
That rich, narrow focus leaves an ever-shrinking pool of available dollars for public institutions like Land Grant Universities to address an ever-expanding list of new problems facing farmers, worries the White House report.
Some of these “new challenges” include the need to boost the efficiency of shrinking water supplies while “reducing (ag's) environmental footprint.”
Other basic R&D is needed to address “challenges” not even mentioned in the report like small farm ecology, perennial plant development and rural infrastructure, key elements to efficient, effective food production 10, 20 and 30 years from now.
The report recommends another $700 million in federal spending, or an 18 percent increase in today's federal ag research budget. And, yeah, that's a lot of money but it's just 12 percent of what the expanded federal crop insurance program would have cost if Big Ag's 2012 Farm Bill had passed.
So, what do you want, fatter crop insurance subsidies for one Farm Bill cycle or ag assurance for, maybe, another 150 years?
To Abraham Lincoln, a visionary genius, the answer was simple. It still is.