SDSU associate professor William “Bill” Berzonsky checks a tissue culture at the Seed Technology Laboratory on the Innovation Campus. Plant genetics would be one of the research areas funded if a $1 million request for the SDSU Agricultural Experiment Station is approved by the Legislature. Photo by John Kubal/Register
• If approved, $1M special appropriation could revitalize SDSU program
BROOKINGS – Included in the $14.5 million of new money the Board of Regents will request from the state Legislature this year is additional funding for the SDSU Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) of just under $1 million.
The money – $988,592 – if approved, would allow the AES to hire eight new researchers and would double the current level of research activity at the SDSU stations.
Last Friday the regents reaffirmed their decision to ask for funds that will allow the Brookings institution to regain some of the ground it has lost in budget cuts over the past three years.
Kathryn Johnson, regents chair, agreed that the experiment station has endured some draconian cuts.
“This is an acknowledgment that the decline in their ability to offer services to the ag community has been seriously impacted,” Johnson said.
“We’ve heard from producers across the state that the experiment station has not been able to meet their needs. We’re taking that seriously.”
Barry Dunn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, said the regents’ approval “will really expand our research mission.”
“Our teaching mission is covered by tuition dollars, but to get this new funding is a tremendous accomplishment, and we’ve fought long and hard for it.”
The special appropriation would pay for salaries at the associate and assistant professor levels for researchers in plant genetics, grassland ecology, molecular plant physiology, biosystems and processing engineering, epigenetics, nutrition of disease resistance and viral and bacterial immunology.
Discussing the ag station’s needs was the key reason for Friday’s regent teleconference, which was called specifically to review the AES budget request.
While the regents had given preliminary approval to the nearly $1 million for new research positions, several members of the board – notably, Harvey Jewett – had doubts about spending that kind of money for research.
In the final vote, the regents gave their OK, but not before they added some special conditions of their own.
Detailed reporting wanted
The regents want Dunn to show exactly how the money will be spent, and more important, to show specifically how the state’s $1 million investment will generate new research grants and outside contracts.
Jewett expressed “increasing discomfort with this research agenda.”
“We’re adding a group of faculty to an area where we’re already working,” he said. “I would ask that we condition our approval (of the AES funding) on an annual report and the amount of direct and indirect payment we get from this. We need more specificity in what grants are engendered and by what subject areas.”
Dunn responded that he would certainly be able to produce what the regents called “productivity reporting.”
“The state invests $9 million annually in the Agricultural Experiment Station, and we report all the time on productivity,” Dunn answered. “We can expand our report as much as needed (by the regents). And I have every confidence that when you see the report, you’ll be proud of the work we do.”
In fact, the experiment station is now giving the state a healthy return on its money. It gets about $9 million in base funding through the regents, and last year that brought in more than $16 million from outside grants and contracts.
Dunn told the board that when the new programs are up and running – after a startup period – the eight positions being requested should generate approximately $1.84 million in grants and contracts.
The SDSU dean said that the funds would be used in three specific areas: human and animal health, energy independence and environmental sustainability.
Dunn noted that the AES request is for “eight full-time equivalents, or FTEs.”
“These are FTEs, not people,” he said, “and funding for these positions will be spread across multiple positions, a mixture of teaching and research. We’ll leverage these dollars to benefit the entire college.”
One of the regents’ concerns was why the state’s commodity groups weren’t more involved in this particular funding request, and why, specifically, Dunn’s new researchers wouldn’t be more focused on traditional ag products like corn and soybeans.
The SDSU administrator noted that currently about 12 percent of ag research dollars are being generated by commodities groups, “and we’ve had a good track record of leveraging that money.” Ag and commodities groups will get behind the new AES initiatives, he said.
But, Dunn added, circumstances in agriculture are changing, and SDSU and the experiment station must meet those needs.
“We’re very concerned in agriculture,” he explained. “Science tells us what we can do, but society tells us what we will do. There’s been a steady erosion of public confidence on production practices, for example, how we meet expectations of the world’s need for food, what we’re doing in disease prevention and nutrition. We’re going back to the drawing board because the world no longer accepts our production practices. We need to be on the cutting edge.”
Three of the eight positions, or FTEs, would be assigned to animal production research, joining the 3.5 FTEs currently funded.
Three new FTEs would be involved in biofuels research, which currently has a staff of five.
“Our team can now literally go from the corn stalk to jet fuel,” Dunn said. “And more of that is needed – it’s a growth area for the state.”
The third broad research area, which would see two FTEs added to the current team of 2.5 researchers, would be grassland studies.
“More than ever we can see what periodic droughts will do to us,” Dunn told the regents. “We’ve done very little risk management for our cattle producers and ranchers. We have disinvested in forage and grassland research, and now we need it.”
Dunn said he’s confident the grassland team will be able to develop new plant varieties “that will thrive where other cultivars don’t.”
“This is not traditional corn or soybean research – a lot of that has been transferred to industry,” he said. “But we’re being stretched by society and by the environment to do this.”
Cuts in recent years
The South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station includes six field stations and more than 17,000 acres of land throughout the state. Created in 1887, the station has used science to find solutions to pressing agricultural problems as well as to identify new opportunities.
The state’s budget crisis has been particularly hard on the AES, as it has been with its partner institution, the SDSU Extension Service.
More than 30 positions were trimmed from the ag station payroll, and over a three-year period, the AES budget was cut by nearly $2 million.
According to the South Dakota Farm Bureau, a national study conducted in 2009 found that each dollar invested in agricultural research in South Dakota generates a social benefit of $13.55, plus an additional $3.60 from other sources.
Farm Bureau support
A Farm Bureau policy statement released last month noted:
“State budget cuts over the past four years of nearly 16 percent are affecting the South Dakota State University agricultural research program. Loss of state dollars, compounded by loss of staff, is hampering public research unique to agriculture in this region.”
Dunn believes that if the Legislature approves the AES funding, it will go a long way to restoring the ag station’s standing in the state and its usefulness to producers.
“We have lots of friends out in the state that have made this happen,” he said. “This is huge for us. We’ve had to absorb $1.8 million in cuts to ag research over three years – we’ve cut two stations, our service labs … and this (new funding) will at least slow the direction in which we’ve been headed.”
Contact Ken Curley at firstname.lastname@example.org.