Ask the proverbial “Man in the Street” for an opinion about scientific research, and if you get anything resembling an intelligent response, you might get comments about smartphones, new drug treatments and maybe a question about what happened to the space program.

As a nation, we have a vague interest in technology that directly affects our lifestyles—demanding bigger, brighter TV screens, faster, more functional internet service and cars that cost less, go faster and offer a wealth of convenience features. That’s how we visualize science as applied to daily life.

Few—if any—of those man-in-the-street interviews would ever raise the subject of agricultural research—except for an occasional complaint about the “dangers” of GMOs. Yet not only does investment in both basic research and applied R&D matter greatly to a country’s economic vitality, but the ROI on such funding is substantial and contributes meaningfully to job and wealth creation.

Fortunately, one voice that loudly articulates the case for research in farm and food production as a vital, if oft ignored, component of maintaining national security and economic viability, continues to raise important points.

The advocate is Alan I. Leshner, CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science journal. Before taking on his current post in 2001, Leshner served as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse—which, by the way, supports some 85 percent of the world’s research on drug abuse and addiction—held several senior position at the National Science Foundation and is a current presidential appointee to the National Science Board.

He knows science and he understand the impact of research.

Here are a few excerpts from a recent message that touched on agricultural research, in which he urged a renewed national commitment to maintaining its priority:

“The U.S. scientific enterprise is heavily beleaguered,” he wrote in an editorial last week in Science online. “The economy is only now recovering from bad times, and the sequester is only making matters worse for scientific research.

“These realities are coming at the same time as other countries are increasing their R&D investments, responding to the clear relationship between a nation’s research capacity, its economic strength and the well-being of its people. The inequality in science funding trends is threatening America’s standing in the global scientific community.”

Leshner went onto note specifically that agricultural R&D provides “a dramatic example of how neglect can undermine a scientific domain.” He noted that USDA spending on ag research declined by 26 percent  (in constant dollars) over the past decade, while comparable investments by China, India, and Brazil have increased dramatically, according to a 2012 International Food Policy Research Institute study.

In the current fiscal year, the federal budget’s steepest research reductions came in programs at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health in such areas as nutrition (and inexplicably for obesity research!), natural resources, renewable energy and food safety.

Anyone want to argue that those areas are unimportant in terms of our collective well-being? Not to mention economic vitality?

Leshner referred to a 2012 study by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which concluded that U.S. agricultural research is no longer prepared to meet the challenges it will face in the 21st century, and that America’s “innovation ecosystem for agriculture” requires a what he called a fundamental restructuring.

On the competitive horizon

Of course, it’s easy to jump onboard the good ship U.S.S. R&D and tout its many benefits. It’s far more difficult making the case that funding for food- and farm-related research ought to be taken from somewhere else—especially taxpayer’s pockets.

Nevertheless, Leshner noted that the PCAST report offers several intriguing ideas to bolster ag R&D that ought to get a hearing:

  • More funding awarded through competitions based on excellence, rather than formula-based grants.
  • Increased funding for challenges unlikely to be addressed by the private sector, such as new pests and pathogens and adapting to a changing climate.
  • Increased investments in scientific workforce development and research infrastructure.
  • Creation of innovation institutes supported by public/private partnerships.

Leshner added that funding strategies should foster collaboration among scientists from traditional agricultural fields with those from other biological domains and the physical sciences, which might be a tough nut to crack, given the territorial nature of the leadership of many scientific disciplines and institutions.

But what’s the alternative? Already ag exports represent a huge market for producers and farmers, and that has potential to expand even further. However, it’s not like there aren’t other competitors globally, nor is it certain that underdeveloped regions of the world (like Africa) won’t ever become competitors at some point in the next couple generations.

If U.S. farm and food productivity isn’t supported by well-funded efforts to maintain the trajectory agriculture has enjoyed the past two decades, our ability to feed the world—and eventually our own country—may be in jeopardy someday.

Someday soon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.