A CENTURY OF SCIENCE IN AGRICULTURE:
THE LESSONS FOR SCIENCE POLICY
James T. Bonnen
Michigan State University
AAEA Annual Meeting
29 July 1986
AAEA Annual Meeting
Reno, Nevada 29 July 1986
A CENTURY OF SCIENCE IN AGRICULTURE:
THE LESSONS FOR SCIENCE POLICY
James T. Bonnen
Michigan State University
". unapplied knowledge is knowledge shorn of its meaning."
Alfred North Whitehead
Today all of science seems to be in some political and policy difficulty. There is
rising conflict over the funding for and the performance of science. In the agricultural
sciences some of this criticism has been generated within agriculture, but there has been
a crescendo of external criticism in Congress and elsewhere ever since the National
Academy of Sciences "Pound Report" in 1972 (NAS). Repeated criticisms from the
national science establishment suggest that agricultural science lacks a basic science
foundation and is a third-rate enterprise. Their usual prescription for this problem is
quite simplistic: eliminate all the "politically allocated" Hatch-type formula funding
substituting for it peer-reviewed, competitive grants -- open to researchers anywhere,
not just in colleges of agriculture.
Various advocacy groups, the media and politicians are also highly critical of the
agricultural sciences. They focus on the dangers of uncontrolled new genetic
technologies, and the threats to health, safety and the environment of other agricultural
technologies. The public attitude toward science has shifted from unqualified support to
a questioning ambivalence and even fear of its consequences. Federal support for
agricultural research has not grown appreciable in real terms since 1967.
At the same time many state legislatures perceive their land grant college to have
abandoned the land grant mission and agricultural problem solving for the academic
glories of basic science. These land grant colleges of agriculture are in considerable
difficulty both with their clientele and legislature. Other colleges of agriculture have
become so applied and isolated from many of the basic disciplines that they are losing
scientific and intellectual vitality. After resisting the idea for over a decade,
agricultural science now shows some sign of understanding it must rethink its mission and
adapt its institutions to a society and an agriculture greatly different from that of 100 or
even 50 years ago.
It would appear that the national science establishment also is slowly beginning to
understand that it too faces some fundamental questions. Since World War II science
policy, except in medicine and agriculture, has been focused only on the basic
disciplines. Dissatisfaction with this policy posture is growing (Shapley and Roy). The
current administration and its recent science advisor, Dr. Keyworth, have argued, as
others have before, that U.S. science policy should be directed to help achieve greater
economic competitiveness. This would require that science policy address some mission
oriented, applied research, not just disciplinary research as it does now. This raises
questions across the full range of science policy priorities.
Science policy then would involve not just disciplinary funding priorities but what
kind of science research should be funded, how such a diverse scientific enterprise should
be institutionalized, funded and managed, what role the private sector should play and,
indeed, what philosophic values should inform the priority setting process. The debate,
however, is poorly informed and inflamed by parochial ideologies and self interest -- in
science and out (Johnson 1984). Many scientists still believe there is only one problem --
First, I will examine some of the lessons I believe we should have learned from a
century of science in agriculture. I will then attempt to extract from those lessons
implications for science policy today.
My remarks reflect two theses. First, the future competitiveness of the U.S., in
agriculture and in the U.S. generally, will depend more on the performance of science
than in the past. But science policy is not currently well adapted to serve society in
improving its competitiveness. Second, a century of experience in agricultural science
holds important lessons not only for agricultural science, but for national science policy
and the institutional design and management of science. However, as Schuh has pointed
out, the value structures and behavior pursued today in many land grant universities and
their colleges of agriculture suggest that the land grant idea is being abandoned. These
institutions have little understanding of their own historical experience, face different
demands and are not currently as capable of sustaining their traditional mission as once
I believe the problem in both agricultural and U.S. science policy is that they have
succeeded. In so doing they have changed both science and society. The consequence is
that both are very different and more complex today, resulting in demands on science to
expand its scope into a far more complex role -- to something, still different from, but
more like the land grant mission. The pressures on agricultural science suggest a role
more like science generally, with a rapidly growing private sector taking over some basic
science but much more of the applied R&D and extension function. It also appears that
responsibility for coordination of agricultural science policy is shifting from a
predominantly public function to more of a shared responsibility.
The Lessons to be Learned
I believe there are lessons to be learned from a century of agricultural science that
speak to the problems that U.S. science policy as well as agricultural science policy face
today. I have argued elsewhere that what evolved in U.S. agriculture was an articulated
system of science-based developmental institutions (Bonnen 1983, 1986, 1987).
The Sources of Increased Productive Capacity
Science research is not the only source of increased productivity. The experience
(and the literature) in international agricultural development leads one to the conclusion
that the primary sources of increased societal capacity include not only technological
change but institutional improvements, increases in human capability (human capital
formation) and the growth of biological and physical capital. While all four are addressed
in the literature, there is a frequent lack of balance in their treatment (Johnson 1986).
Many biological and physical scientists and some economists, for example, tend to
focus on technological advance to the neglect of the other factors. Indeed, the society
exhibits a disordering "technological fixation." The development process is a search for
the appropriate balance in complementary social investments needed in all four of these
prime movers. That balance is determined in good part by the nature and limitations of
the specific social, biological and physical environment within which development occurs.
There is as well the matter of the values we attach to the human purposes in which
the four prime movers are used. A substantial change in values (monetary and
nonmonetary) or in a value's perceived importance can transform the capacities of
society and modify the mix of its activities as well as their relative productivity and
value in use. An example is the clear change in valuation that has occurred with respect
to environmental degradation and the many other negative external effects of
agricultural production and technologies.
Knowledge and the Research Process
Any thoughtful examination of the application of scientific knowledge to human
problem solving, will expose a continuum of institutions and processes that involve
several categories of knowledge which they help create and manage. We need to
understand this continuum of knowledge. The term basic research I take to refer to
disciplinary knowledge, which is the theory, empirical measurements and/or
measurement techniques or methods explaining a fundamental class of phenomena such
The Creation Development Utilization of Knowledge
BASIC RESEARCH APPLIED RESEARCH USE
---------------- ----- -- .i .
DISCIPLINARY KNOWLEDGE SUBJECT MATTER KNOWLEDGE PROBLEM SOLVING KNOWLEDGE
Research In: Research to Institution, H C
Physical Science f Develop the Human Capital, Adaptive Human Capital,
Biological Science Implications Technology Research Technology & USE
Social Science i of Basic --nDevelopment 1- -
Humanities Knowledge Transfer
---- ---------------- ......----- ------- ------ ----- -------------------------
as philosophy, physics, botany or economics. This knowledge improves the capacity of a
discipline. It includes disciplinary research on values.
An applied, multidisciplinary mode of inquiry produces subject matter and problem-
solving knowledge. Subject-matter knowledge is multidisciplinary knowledge useful to
set of decision makers facing a common set of problems. This knowledge is organized
under such labels as biotechnology, animal nutrition, marketing or farm management.
Most departments in colleges of agriculture are more like broad multidisciplinary subject
matters than disciplines (e.g. agronomy, animal husbandry, agricultural economics,
horticulture, agricultural engineering). University professional schools and institutes are
subject matter organizations. These units organize inquiry and knowledge from different
disciplines needed to understand a subject. This knowledge base is necessary to support
systematic and sustained problem-solving.
Rarely can one go from subject matter knowledge directly to a decision. Before
knowledge has any direct relevance to a specific problem, it must usually be fashioned
into problem-solving knowledge -- i.e. into a form that is made relevant to a single
decision maker with a specific problem (or set of decision makers, all with one specific
problem). See Johnson (forthcoming) on types of knowledge. Problem-solving knowledge
comes in prescriptions -- i. e. should or ought statements for which knowledge of values
A complex research process produces knowledge. Disciplinary knowledge either has
some known relevance or does not when it is created. If that without known relevance is
to have meaning or value someone must devote themselves to research developing the
implications of the new disciplinary knowledge. After its potential is clear, one can
begin to think about specific forms for use of this knowledge. That is, what kinds of
technologies, institutions and human capital are appropriate and useful to develop out of
physical, biological and social science and humanistic disciplinary knowledge?
After developing a new biological technology (or a new institution), for example,
one must face the problem of making that new technology (or institution) work in
thousands of ecosystems (and social systems) across the continental United States. This
requires research in every state to adapt the potential of productivity to each state's
diverse environment. When first developed, hybrid corn production was limited to five
cornbelt states. It took 20 years of adaptive research in all the states before it could be
grown commercially across the entire United States and before its potential yields were
fully realized, even in the corn belt. The location-specific character of agriculture
makes adaptive research a central feature of agricultural research. But the applied
research enterprise does not end here.
Creating an increase in productive capacity disturbs the ecosystems into which it is
injected. New host populations and ecological niches are created making it possible for
pests and diseases to attack and destroy new productivity. Maintenance research across
multiple ecosystems is thus necessary in perpetuity to defend the productivity that has
been created. As scientific knowledge increases and with it agricultural productivity,
the proportion of total R&D investment going to maintenance research must inevitably
grow. Given the location-specific nature of agriculture, a geographically dispersed
institutional system with diverse ecosystem-specific capability is required to sustain
adaptive and maintenance research as well as technology transfer activities. All of this
seems fairly obvious but I find many scientists, including some in agriculture, who do not
understand that nature imposes these varied activities on agricultural science making
unique demands on agricultural science policy.
Various external effects of agricultural technology are now creating a need for
assessment of new technologies and institutional innovations. As we do new development
research, we need to understand the potential effects of an incipient technology. Will it
undermine rural communities, degrade the environment or poison the food chain? What
positive and negative values do we place on the impacts of an institutional adaption to
the new technology? Who gains, who loses? Assessment research is needed to guide the
research process and to legitimize and protect its integrity. Like problem solving,
assessment involves research on values.
The agenda of issues in agriculture today strongly suggests that more social science
and humanities knowledge is needed. This is due to growing needs for the modification or
development of new institutions, the adaptation and transfer of technologies, for ethical
problems, and to a lesser degree in the creation of human capital. The mix of relevant
disciplines varies with the problems addressed. Implementing the right mix is imperative
to future public support of agricultural science. The growing complexity of the industry,
and thus the chance of error, as well as the fact that science is increasingly expected to
minimize deleterious impacts on society means that we may not ignor current criticisms
and expect continued and adequate public funding. The need for social science and
humanistic research on agriculture and rural life is growing.
A System of Interactive, Coordinated Linkages
It has been found necessary in agriculture for the continuum of knowledge, from
creation to use, to be not only institutionalized but coordinated and focused on
problems. The literature on returns to investment in U.S. agricultural R&D, education
and extension (technology transfer) demonstrates that a large part of the productivity
achieved in agriculture arises out of the interactive linkage coordinating these various
investments and the institutions that manage them, rather than flowing directly from
investments in the four prime movers themselves (Evenson et al; Ruttan). This is
because the four prime movers are complements in production. Each is necessary but not
sufficient to achieve an optimum output.
The same conclusions can be drawn about investments in the different kinds of
research. Investment in disciplinary research, although absolutely necessary, is not
sufficient to achieve high levels of capacity and productivity. The full potential of
productivity from disciplinary research is not realized until it is complemented by
investments in the relevant types of applied research. The reverse is also true; without a
continuing basic science investment the productivity and economic return to applied
science will decline.
The same principle applies to all elements that affect productive capacity: each is
necessary but not sufficient. It is the investment in all relevant complementary factors
plus systematic coordination of decisions about the combinations and timing of the
various factors influencing productivity that is most important. Failure to link together
in the same goal-driven system the public and private decisions about investments in
disciplinary research, various types of applied research and technology development, the
development or modification of institutions, extension, education and other human
capital and conventional capital slows the achievement and reduces the level of
productive capacity that can be extracted from a given investment in agriculture. When
an investment is potentially profitable, productivity deferred is in some good part lost
forever (Knutson and Tweeten).
For a set of institutions to be a developmental system the individual institutions
and functions must be interlinked or articulated, so that they communicate and
cooperate in action to achieve some common goals. This interlinkage and coordination
speed interaction and the setting and achievement of goals. They are the source of the
system's adaptive capability.
Successful systems of science-based development evolve in an iterative and
interactive manner. They are not conceived or planned as a whole and then put into
place. No one knows enough to do that successfully. Scientific inquiry, policy and
institution building decisions are all made under great uncertainty, with imperfect
knowledge. Many failures and mistakes occur. Thus, institutional behavior and science
must be iterative and interactive in their mode of both inquiry and action to sustain the
learning necessary to maintain adaptive capability. Substantial adaptive capacity is
necessary not only to deal with uncertainty and mistakes but also with the tension and
conflict between institutions and multiple goals within the system.
The U.S. system is coordinated and linked not only through formal land grant
administrative structures, but through markets and the political process at both the state
and the national level. Indeed, these last two validate and sustain most of the values
that drive this system of developmental institutions. In addition complex, informal
interinstitutional linkage, which differs greatly from state to state, helps articulate and
coordinate the system. Informal linkages have characterized the relations between the
USDA-land grant structure and farmer organizations. Informal relations also
characterize linkage to private firm R&D and technology transfer, although these
interactions are now becoming both more important and more formal.
Decentralized Decision Capacity
Another characteristic of the U.S. system is its decentralization. While it is a
national system, authority is not concentrated solely at the national level. The
conditions of agricultural production are highly varied and location specific.
Decentralization is necessary for successful adaptation of science knowledge and
technology to the many varied, local ecospheres that characterize agricultural
production. There are, in addition, all sorts of local political, cultural and social
traditions that make it necessary to accommodate institutional structures to local
polities and resources to ensure a legitimized and coordinated system.
System Decisions are Consensual
It follows from its decentralized nature that decisions affecting all or large parts
of the U.S. system must be developed by consensus, if they are to be accepted as
legitimate and implemented effectively. The goals and major initiatives of the system
historically have evolved out of a debate of issues ending in a bargained consensus.
Unilateral power plays to achieve something that substantially affects the whole system
generally create excessive conflict, reduce cooperation and end in failure.
Integration of the Agendas of Science and Agriculture
The institutions of agriculture combine and manage in a single system societal
problem solving and the pursuit of the agenda of science. The pragmatism and political
expediency necessary to sustain effective societal problem solving involves organization,
values and expectations that are in some degree inconsistent and, in the same system, in
perpetual tension with those of science, especially the pursuit of knowledge for its own
sake. Much of the societal support as well as the productivity generated by agricultural
science has arisen out of the sustained interlinkage of these functions and the
management of the resulting tensions to maintain a working balance between the agenda
and capacities of science and the agenda of problems in agriculture. Effective science-
based problem solving requires coordination and integration of science with any economic
sector in which science is expected to drive major increases in productivity.
Chronic Underfunding and Spillover
What have we learned about funding agricultural science? The annual rate of
return on public investments in agricultural research runs 3 to 5 times the rates on most
alternative public investments (Ruttan p. 248). The high rate of return on public
agricultural R&D suggests that it is substantially underfunded by normal investment
criteria. To argue that agricultural R&D is inadequately funded today runs into a
fallacious counter argument. It is said that the world's markets are awash with the
products of excess agricultural capacity because of science research. This is pure
nonsense. The creation of this excess capacity is the consequence of mistaken
investment decisions by farmers based on excessively optimistic expectations, induced in
part by subsidies and foolish national policies. These same expectations were
subsequently destroyed by the growth in world supplies, increased industrial nation
subsidies of their agriculture and a U.S. administration's macroeconomic policy that has
destroyed U.S. agriculture's export potential while escalating its costs and leaving it in
the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
We are in a contest in international markets which depends in part on a healthy
agricultural research enterprise to maintain comparative advantage in production costs
and social science research on policy and markets to maintain realistic expectations.
The argument that R&D causes surpluses arises out of the equally fallacious reverse
argument of scientists who urge increased biophysical R&D to solve world hunger, when
hunger is with few exceptions due to inadequate income or its distribution (Johnson
Today state funding far exceeds federal support of the state system. Federal
funding of the state system has all but ceased to grow in real terms since 1967. This
raises serious questions about the federal commitment to its historic partnership with the
states in agricultural research. The issue is fundamental to the long term performance
of the system since a large part of the benefits of research funded by one state spillover
into other states. The empirical evidence on spillover of the benefits from research
financed by one state accruing to farmers and consumers in other states is strong
(Havlicek and White). While it varies greatly from state to state, typical spillover losses
range from one-half to two-thirds on basic science and one-third to one-half of
technology oriented investments (Evenson et al.). State level benefit losses constitute a
disincentive for state investment in agricultural science. Without compensating federal
funding, the states, acting alone and rationally, will never achieve an optimum level of
national investment in agricultural research. This is the classic public finance problem
faced by systems with two or more levels of government.
Ruttan argues that the primary rationale today for federal support of state
agricultural research is to compensate the states for spillover -- in order to achieve a
socially optimum national rate of research investment (pp. 251-59). Thus, each state's
share of federal support for agricultural research should at minimum approximate their
spillover losses. This suggests that the federal government should be matching state
funding .on an open-ended basis rather than the reverse. The only other solution is to
fuhd all agricultural R&D at the federal level.
Spillover also occurs internationally. The benefits of European and U.S.
agricultural research have flowed to the developing countries over many decades. The
rising perception of this today in the midst of a ferocious international battle for export
markets gives rise to foolish efforts, such as that of the U.S. soybean producers, to
eliminate U.S. international aid in agriculture in a futile effort to monopolize the use of
U.S. agricultural research results. The only real hope for increased demand for U.S. farm
exports lies in higher incomes in developing countries due to development. In addition,
agricultural science is an international enterprise today. We are about as likely
beneficiaries of research capability elsewhere, as the reverse. Withdrawing from
international cooperation in agriculture would be suicidal for our own productivity.
Stability of Funding
The research on the optimum rate of investment in agricultural science
demonstrates substantial inefficiencies and clear losses of productivity when the funding
of R&D is unstable, -- i.e., when we are unable to sustain the pursuit of the inherent long
term goals of R&D and development (Knutson and Tweeten; White and Havlicek).
Disciplinary research, much of technology development and major adaptive research
would appear to be especially vulnerable. This principle applies to R&D generally,
although the characteristics of aggregate demand and supply response accentuate the
problem in agriculture.
Potential future losses of benefits arising from past underfunding can be offset only
partially by accelerated rates of investment in research. Attempts to accelerate
investments beyond that permitted by the rate of growth in demand soon creates major
losses in the incomes of farmers and their suppliers. The point is clear. Not only are the
losses to underfunding of agricultural research substantial, but to a great degree they are
permanent. Productivity deferred is productivity lost. The acceleration of investment
to reach an optimum rate of funding is constrained economically and politically. Thus,
this is a race that goes to the tortoise not the hare -- i.e., to sustained long term,
institutional support of agricultural research, not the jerking around that has been
imposed on the agricultural system nationally for almost two decades through inflation,
stagnant and uncertain appropriations, inconsistent goals, political abuse and
Implications for Policy
What then are the implications of these lessons for science policy today.
The Funding Debate
The conflict over research funding is a debate of the deaf. The national science
establishment argues that only competitive grants can be used effectively to allocate
resources for science purposes. Any other approach produces poor quality science. The
agricultural science establishment has responded by defending Hatch or formula funding
as essential for science in agriculture. Some agricultural leadership clearly fears the
effects of exclusive use of competitive grants on the stability and long term vitality of
their institutions. Competitive grants, of course, are now a small but regular part of
federal funding of agricultural science. The funding argument tends to be put in
either/or terms. If one is good the other has to be bad for science. This completely
misses the point of what is known about both.
Formula funding was originally established to induce development of the state
institutions of agricultural science. It has been responsive to the need for sustaining the
large fixed or overhead costs of science and the mission oriented, largely applied nature
of experiment station research. The cost of entrepreneuring and managing formula
funding falls on the administrators in the agricultural research system, not on the
researchers (Bredahl et al). The quality of science produced depends not on the funding
process but on the quality of individual scientists hired and how supportive the research
institution, its incentive structures and academic freedom are of creativity (Berry).
Competitive grants are reasonably well adapted to allocating disciplinary research
resources. The cost of entrepreneuring and managing competitive grants falls mostly on
the researcher (Bredahl et al). This is why you find senior scientists who no longer have
time for for anything but developing grant proposals and managing a laboratory. This
cannot be the best use of a creative scientist's time. Short-run, project-by-project grant
proposals do not add up into coherent long-term department and university research
programs. Competitive grants often do not cover the fixed costs of research (Ruttan,
Chapter 9). Consequently the current battle over Reagan Administration efforts to
reduce the overhead rates universities receive on research grants is extremely heated.
Experiments involving review panels, composed of different scientists with
comparable background and ability, have produced entirely different rank orderings of
the same set of project proposals. Thus, there is a large subjective element in the
awarding of competitive grants. The recent flurry of attempts to use political power to
go around the competitive grant system in obtaining federal research support appears to
be based on the belief that an "old-boy" system rewards the long established and
discriminates against smaller and less well established institutions. These institutions
believe that a political power distribution in science biases the allocation of competitive
grants. True or not this has become a growing problem in legitimizing science budgets.
Neither allocative device is perfect. They work reasonably well for some
purposes but not others. Science and its purposes have become so complex that research
funding requires some mixture of funding devices including, but not limited to formula or
institutional funding and competitive grants. The type of research and purpose should
control the mix of allocation devices. New ways of funding science are needed to deal
with the increasing complexity of science and the growing demands of society. We need
to stop our senseless arguments and look at science, its multiple purposes (public and
private) and examine pragmatically the ways that we might best fund different types of
research. First, however we must agree on the role of science in society. Without
clarity of purpose, very little else can be decided.
The Scope of U.S. Science Policy
It is clear to me that the science establishment needs to take a more
comprehensive view of science and its role in society. It functions today like any other
special interest pleader when it argues only for support of basic (disciplinary and
academic) science. This leaves academic science isolated from and failing to make its
greatest contribution to the society. Society's support of science is consequently not as
strong as it should be. Somehow the private sector is supposed to cover all the applied
research and development and coordinate the continuum of knowledge. With little or no
public policy direction and substantial public good elements in applied R&D this has
never been realistic.
The necessity for addressing the complete continuum of knowledge, even within the
university, was put in perspective 50 years ago by Alfred North Whitehead. He said:
In the process of learning there should be present, in some sense or other, a
subordinate activity of application. In fact, the applications are part of the
knowledge. For the very meaning of things known is wrapped up in the
relationships beyond themselves. Thus, unapplied knowledge is knowledge
shorn of its meaning. Careful shielding of a university from the activities of
the world around is the best way to chill interest and to defeat progress."
Much of the creativity in any discipline comes from the intellectual stimulation of
confronting disciplinary knowledge with the test of application, knowledge from other
disciplines, and the challenge of societal problem solving. We badly need to recapture
this catholic view of science and make it central again to the ethic of science. Failure
to do so will leave science less creative and productive, whether viewed from science or
The pressures society is putting on science are pushing us toward a modern science
and technology policy that would provide a conscious, coordinated balance of public and
private investment across the entire continuum of knowledge from creation to use in
areas critical to society. Today, only in medicine and agriculture can such systems be
said to exist, and both of these need some institutional rethinking and reform. New
institutions (rules, roles etc.) are needed. Statemanship and vision are needed. Implied
are changes on campus and in Washington to interlink basic science and its policies with a
limited number of long term, science-based missions of significance to society.
Coordination of effort across disciplines and with industry is involved. The lessons
learned from a century of science in agriculture are clearly relevant to any U.S. science
policy that focuses on raising U.S. productivity.
The Paradigm of Science is Changing
Another reason we need to rethink the scope of science policy and its funding
system is that the modal paradigm of science appears to be changing. Once distinctively
separate domains of disciplinary inquiry have, as the frontiers of knowledge have
expanded, begun to overlap and interpenetrate each other. Even forty years ago there
were scientists known as physical chemists and others called chemical physicists. Today,
the identity of chemistry is all but lost in the rest of science (Browne). The last two
Nobel Laureates in chemistry were not chemists but mathematicians. Parts of classical
physics are not far behind. This overlap results in new disciplines or at least separately
organized units. We have departments today of biophysics and biochemistry. Advanced
math and statistics are essential to the cutting edge in most disciplines. The boundaries
of biology and its subdisciplines are transcended not only by physics, chemistry and other
disciplines but by research technologies and techniques -- e.g. microbiology and
molecular biology. Technological capability drives the biophsysical sciences as much as
science drives technological capability. In the social sciences and humanities this two-
way causation includes not only technology but institutions. The social sciences have
long had large overlapping domains.
The point is that to practice at the cutting edge in any discipline today, even the
biological and physical sciences, requires not only command of a discipline but also of
major components of knowledge from related disciplines well beyond mathematics and
statistics. As science grows more complex 'and interactive, a growing proportion of
disciplinary inquiries pursued to completion take one through multiple disciplines and
techniques. This overlap has become so extensive that creating new disciplines or
departments has ceased to be the best or only response. Thus, paradoxically to practice
a discipline today one must increasingly collaborate with other disciplines or become in
some degree multidisciplinary. This is not really news. The change is only one of degree,
but it is so fundamental that it suggests a change is underway in the modal paradigm of
The idea of science that evolved out of the 19th century and around which the
growth of science, especially basic science, funding has been organized is predominantly
that of the individual scientist surrounded by a few graduate students or laboratory
assistants. The growth of "big science" and the rapid development of the scope and
importance of private sector R&D, even in basic science areas, now combines with the
growing interpenetration and overlap of one discipline with others to erode the relevance
of the old paradigm. What one sees increasingly are R&D consortia and cooperative
research endeavors of various sorts. Every session on science policy or university
strategic planning I have attended recently has emphasized the need for more
multidisciplinary research. The pressure for collaboration between disciplinary
researchers in universities is growing. The numbers of multiuniversity consortia have
grown as have those that combine university and industry R&D efforts. Industrial R&D
consortia have existed for decades. The motive for these arrangements include cost
sharing where there are economies of scale (often involving large, specialized "big
science" research facilities or tools) as well as the need to assemble diverse disciplines
for fundamental research or to bridge the continuum of knowledge from disciplinary
through applied subject matter and problem solving inquiry.
This shift toward more collective or cooperative research consortia makes the
funding question very much more complex for everyone from NSF and NIH to the
foundations and industry. It opens up the question of appropriate funding mechanisms
and puts the emphasis on the purpose or goals of the research. I believe both the
competitive grant, basic science experience as well as the agricultural science
experience are relevant -- if all parties to the debate will listen to the others and think
objectively about the problems we face in common.
The Private Sector R&D Role is Growing
The private sector presence in R&D has been growing rapidly. This is especially
significant in economic sectors where vertical integration produces large oligopolistic
firms who have substantial influence and control over the industry's demand and supply
functions. Such firms know they will still be around 20 years from now. They can and
increasingly do invest in both basic and applied science to guide and control the
conditions of that future. Even so, few of these firms can afford the scale of basic
science investments they might like or that society needs. This creates a growing
interdependence between public and private R&D that generates pressures for
collaboration and joint ventures. It is pulling university basic science into coordinated
efforts that cover the entire continuum of knowledge and into new funding
In agriculture private sector R&D has developed somewhat later because of the
more atomistic nature of many agricultural markets. Concentration is proceeding
rapidly in agriculture today. With it has come an equally rapid growth of private
agricultural R&D taking over many areas of applied research that had been a public
responsibility. The consequence is that agricultural science and the land grant system is
becoming somewhat less problem and product specific and more a general science
wholesaler than a retailer. Agriculture science is being pressed back toward a mix that
is heavier on basic science combined with a somewhat different set of applied science
and extension activities.
While still quite different, agricultural science and academic disciplinary science
are being propelled toward a more common set of responsibilities, problems and
activities. In common they face the need to redefine the changing boundary between
public and private R&D responsibility. The growing role of private R&D means that the
private research institutions will have a far more significant (formal?) role in the
coordination of science policy. With greater intermixing of public and private motives,
the public sector (Congress, universities, science professions) must find new ways to
assure the integrity of science and its decision processes. The public institutions also
bear greater responsibilities to assure that the public interest in science is served. Much
applied R&D remains a public good that will be ignored if applied science is ceded to the
private sector without thought.
The Continuum of Knowledge is Expanding
Coordinating the continuum of knowledge from creation to use is made even more
difficult today by the growing stock of more and more complex knowledge and by the
specialization of science. In terms of organizational distance, the extreme ends of the
continuum of knowledge are moving away from each other as knowledge increases and
science grows more specialized. Any policy that hopes to extract greater productivity
from science through a coordinated attack on the problems of some sector must face the
fact that the problem of coordination has become far more complex. This, combined
with the growing complexity of most economic sectors, makes the coordination and
linkage of public and private sector problem-solving research and technology and
knowledge transfer (extension) much more difficult to conceptualize and manage. The
extreme complexity of the technology transfer function can be seen in research on this
topic by Feller and his colleagues.
Agricultural Science Policy
The older institutions of agricultural science operate in a different context today,
and behave differently than they did before World War II. Up until the 1950s the vast
majority of public funds going into the biological sciences were committed in agricultural
science budgets. Today, agriculture science accounts for 2% or less of total federal R&D
expenditures (OTA). Before World War II, except for agriculture, the Federal
government was not an important patron of science, which was funded on a shoe string by
a few elite universities and foundations. Up until 1916, agricultural research activities
accounted for one quarter or more of the USDA budget (OTA). Today, a far larger
research enterprise accounts for no more than two percent of the USDA's budget.
Today the private sector accounts for about two-thirds of all agricultural R&D
expenditure (Ruttan pp. 181-186). Two-thirds of this is concentrated in physical science
and engineering and only a small but growing part can be described as basic science. At
the state experiment stations about three-quarters of the research is in the biological
sciences and technology. According to Ruttan, social science research accounts for less
than 3% of private sector R&D and less than 10% of public sector R&D in agriculture (p.
The funding of science began to change after World War II with the creation of the
National Science Foundation (NSF) and the great expansion of the National Institutes of
Health (NIH). These institutions today support a large public and private academic
science structure, mostly disciplinary in nature and, with a few exceptions, largely
outside of and unconnected with the land grant-USDA system of agricultural science
institutions. This means that the bulk of basic biological, physical and social science and
humanities research, some portion of which is undoubtedly relevant to agriculture, today
lies outside the system of agricultural linkages.
The impact is more pronounced because of the fragmentation of academic science
into a progressively greater number of separate departmental units as scientific
knowledge has grown and become more specialized. In the land grant colleges, the same
evolution involved the movement of most disciplinary faculty into separate specialized
departments outside of the colleges of agriculture. All of this has steadily increased the
organizational distance between applied research in agriculture and some of its
disciplinary roots. It has increased the difficulty involved in interlinkage and
coordination of the continuum of knowledge from its creation to use.
Complicating this is the dominate value belief of the NSF-National Academy of
Science-academic science establishment that only disciplinary research in the biological
and physical sciences is academically respectable and justified. The support given the
social sciences tends to be limited to the behavioral sciences and to positivistic inquiry.
Anything involving questions about what has value is not considered to be the domain of
science, but is treated as subjective and nonscientific. The response of many colleges of
agriculture to the changing values and distribution of power in academic science has
often been an equally parochial, nearly exclusive focus on applied problem solving
Other colleges of agriculture, many land grant universities and some agricultural
professional associations have absorbed as their ideal the academic science
establishment's exclusive focus on disciplinary research. Their "search for academic
excellence" is denaturing the land-grant tradition of problem solving and service to all
people, irrespective of wealth or position. A near exclusive focus on basic discipline
depreciates applied, multidisciplinary research, denies admission of problem solvers and
prescriptive analysis to the academic pantheon, and turns good land grant universities
into second-rate, private academies. Such an environment destroys the basis for
effective extension education and problem solving, and lowers the potential productivity
of any agricultural science investment. Today these two parochialisms of "pure" and
"applied" science constitute an obstacle in the search for an appropriate balance of
investment across the continuum of knowledge necessary to achieve greater national
capability (Johnson 1984). A less narcissistic ethic is needed to sustain a balanced
investment in science.
Agricultural research today is a matter of minor political concern in both the
USDA and Congress. Over recent decades the congressional interest in USDA research
budgets has focused primarily on applied commodity research and the proliferation and
location of regional research laboratories in selected congressional districts. Only
recently has this begun to change in some places in Congress. The narrowing of farmer
interest to immediate farm program benefits combined with the lack of scientific vision
in either congressional or USDA political leadership has over several decades contributed
to a confusion of purpose and to an isolation and fragmentation of the USDA's national
A once-effective priority-setting process has been undermined by abuse of the R&D
function by Congress and USDA political leadership, the erosion of USDA research
dominance, a decline in the dependence of the colleges on the USDA, as well as the rise
of new public and private R&D actors of varying importance to agriculture but outside
the agricultural science system. Relevant activities are not as well interlinked and
coordinated. Agricultural research is in large part a public good. In a policy process
dominated by highly organized economic interests with destructively narrow, short-term
views of self interest, public goods are of little concern. Why worry? The agricultural
cornucopia will always flow. But will it? Or will the public interest be served?
Institutional changes since 1977 attempt to deal with part of this problem. The
establishment of the Joint Council on Food and Agricultural Sciences, the National
Agricultural Research and Extension Users Advisory Board and more recently an
Assistant Secretary for Science and Education create a potential for greater clarity of
purpose and coordination of priorities. The USDA Agricultural Research Service seems
to be in a resurgence.
Outside of defense R&D, real federal funding has of all research grown very slowly
since the late 1960s. Federal funding for land grant agricultural research has faltered,
and all but ceased to grow in real terms since 1967. The Federal partnership with the
states in agricultural research has faded and now lies in the balance. Without an
effective national agricultural research policy and without an influential national
research focus, coordination of the agricultural research system has been slowly
deteriorating for decades.
Agricultural science needs to become more nearly an integrated part of the science
establishment. Agricultural sector political power would appear inadequate to sustain a
modern, balanced science base for agriculture. But the integration and cooperation
needed between the two science establishments will not come unless there is greater
mutual appreciation of the strengths each would bring to a common, more coordinated
endeavor. The old land grant model exhibits many of the desired characteristics of such
a system, but even it is in need of institutional rethinking to adapt it to the modern
political environment of science and agriculture.
The older institutions of agriculture are in some disarray, although they now seem
to be adapting to these changes. Power is being redistributed toward newer political and
bureaucratic actors, many of whom have little understanding of the nature of agriculture
as an industry and as a biological process, to say nothing of science's role in agriculture.
The system of education and research that developed in agriculture between the 1880's
and World War I, is in enough disorder to raise questions about its continuing viability as
a system. Most of the institutions will survive, but will the system? Many scientists
outside agriculture are both ignorant and critical of the agricultural research structure.
Indeed, many seem even to resent its existence. National commitment to these
institutions is in question. Yet without some kind of system for coordination of the
complex of relevant national and local institutions, achieving the full potential of future
increases in agricultural productivity is in doubt. Here agricultural science differs in its
needs from medicine and other parts of science. Such differences must be recognized
and accommodated in science policy and its funding. We must be able to explain those
A mature industrial nation's comparative advantage in trade rests on high
technology and high human capital industries such as electronics, computers,
communications systems, education, finance and, in many cases, agriculture. Agriculture
is increasingly dependent on scientific research to remain a high technology sector.
Two generally unrecognized systemic problems have arisen that threaten our ability
to sustain the kind of R&D policies that will support a high technology economy.. One is
the post World War II drift of the U.S. scientific community toward the view that the
only research of importance and the only research worth financing and doing is basic
science (disciplinary) research (Shapley and Roy). At the same time that the academic
community's capacities have shifted to the disciplinary end of the research spectrum, the
problems of society have become more specialized, interactive and complex, requiring
(besides disciplinary research) greater systematic investment in applied, multidisciplinary
research of a subject matter and problem solving nature. If all the applied research
could be done by the private sector this would only be a problem, of coordination. But
most early technology, human capital and institutional development and much of the
adaptive and maintenance research in biology are clearly a public good and beyond the
private sector's capability. Thus, the training and values of academic science are
undermining the society's capacity for problem solving, while the need for such capacity
grows more intense.
There is a second problem. As an industrializing nation's agriculture develops, its
production and marketing processes inevitably become highly specialized and its welfare
and performance increasingly vulnerable to disruptive outside forces. The result is
growing government policy intervention in agriculture, an expanding private-sector
interest in public policy outcomes, and ultimately severe fragmentation of economic
interests. This fragmentation leads to rising levels of political conflict and disorder
among the institutions of agriculture, along with the domination of the policy process by
progressively narrower economic interests that make it far more difficult to pursue long-
term research .goals, especially for research that promises to provide only diffused or
problematically distributed benefits. As a consequence, as long term, steady support for
agricultural science research has become absolutely essential to the future of an
industrialized agriculture, the increased fragmentation and narrowing of the economic
interests in agriculture make it increasingly difficult to mobilize support for long term
goals. This can be seen clearly in both Europe and the U.S.
Thus, most industrial nations with highly productive agricultural sectors face an
eventual political-organizational crisis in deciding whether or not, and in what form, they
will sustain the science-based developmental system in agriculture that with varying
degrees of success they have created. Failure to maintain that system will substantially
disadvantage an industrial country both internally and in international affairs. Food will
always be a strategic necessity, whatever a country's resource base.
We must in my judgment integrate the two science establishments and stand
together on policy for science. Much learning is necessary before that is possible. We
must also broaden U.S. science policy to merge the agenda of science with that of some
of society's problems without impairing the integrity of either the basic science search
for knowledge or society's problem solving-process. This is a large challenge in which we
can learn much from the mistakes and successes of the agricultural sciences.
The Social Sciences in Agriculture
The rising criticisms of science and its external effects reveals how little relative
attention and investment has been devoted to social science and humanistic inquiry in
agriculture. A serious imbalance exists. The biophysical science-based technological
growth creates externalities and increases the need for technology assessment, new
institutional innovations and research on ethics and values. The latter two especially are
the domains of the social sciences and humanities for which we have failed to provide
adequately in science policy, public or private. Industry does not wish to assume the
costs of dealing with externalities and the most influencial agricultural scientists either
do not want to believe that their scientific inquiries involve such problems or simply see
their social responsibility as limited. The public sees it otherwise.
In the social sciences only agricultural economics is fully established in every
college of agriculture. Sociology is partially institutionalized and needs to be expanded
to a full role. In justification one needs only to point to the contributions of Buttel on
structure and institutionalizing the new genetic technologies, Bush and Lacy on the
sociology of agricultural science, Dillman on the information revolution in agriculture as
well as the many sociologists who dominate the literature on rural communities and their
demography, welfare and development. Beyond this it is hard to justify entire
departments in each college. Nevertheless agriculture is in need of continuing research
capacity in political science, law, social psychology, cultural anthropology and perhaps
In the humanities, our lack of any historical perspective on our past now distorts
agricultural leaders views and the generation of professionals we are now training
generally do not even have rural backgrounds. The growing set of ethical issues in
agricultural policy and in science require philosophic attention.
Because we are often the only established social science department, I believe
agricultural economists have a responsibility to make the case for the missing social
sciences and humanities in the colleges. We have neither the personnel nor the expertize
to meet this rising challenge ourselves. In any case, we have some serious deficiencies of
our own to face.
The agricultural sciences made their reputation as empirical sciences. Agricultural
economics is no exception. Our profession's empirical tradition was built around an equal
or balanced emphasis on theory (including disciplines other than economics), statistical
measurement techniques, and data (Bonnen forthcoming).
Since World War II agricultural economics has been experiencing a drift toward an
antiempirical and a disciplinary outlook. We are moving away from the empirical
tradition we inherited towards the celebration.of theory and statistical methods while
ignoring data. Any profession becomes what it celebrates and rewards.
Part of the problem lies in academic economics and is not new. Fifteen years ago
in his presidential address to the American Economic Association, Professor Wassily
Leontief described this part of our problem very clearly. On economic theory he
. The weak all too slowly growing empirical foundation clearly cannot
support the proliferating superstructure of pure, or should.I say, speculative
economic theory . Uncritical enthusiasm for mathematical formulation
tends often to conceal the ephemeral substantive content of the argument
behind the formidable front of algebraic signs . the assumptions on which
the model has been based are easily forgotten. But it is precisely the
empirical validity of these assumptions on which the usefulness of the entire
What is really needed, in most cases, is a very difficult and seldom very neat
assessment and verification of these assumptions in terms of observed facts.
Here mathematics cannot help ....
Then on statistical techniques he notes that econometrics,
. can be in general characterized as an attempt to compensate for the
glaring weakness of the data base available to us by the widest possible use of
more and more sophisticated statistical techniques. Alongside the mounting
pile of elaborate theoretical models we see a fast-growing stock of equally
intricate statistical tools. These are intended to stretch to the limit the
meager supply of facts.
. In no other field of empirical inquiry has so massive and sophisticated a
statistical machinery been used with such indifferent results. Nevertheless
theorists continue to turn out model after model and mathematical
statisticians to devise complicated procedures one after another. Most of
these are relegated to the stockpile without any practical application or after
only a perfunctory demonstration exercise.
Leontief went on to applaud agricultural economics as an ideal empirical science,
praise we have not fully deserved for some time. Even as Leontief spoke in 1970
agricultural economics was already abandoning its empirical tradition.
Why is this happening? There seem to be several causes. First, we are emulating
academic economics, which, with some distinguished exceptions, now exhibits little
commitment to the empirical. Another source of the problem, I believe, is the search for
"academic excellence" in agricultural economics that places excessive or sole emphasis
on rewarding the development of disciplinary knowledge, almost to the exclusion of the
development of subject matter and problem solving knowledge, both of which are
essential outputs of an effective agricultural economics department.
Economics can achieve distinction through the creation of disciplinary knowledge
alone (which still requires empirical validation). Agricultural economics cannot. Thus, a
badly flawed notion of what agricultural economics is about has led to incentive
structures for tenure and promotion penalizing those who emphasize empirical work or
who spend large parts of their lives in applied problem solving and subject matter
research without significant disciplinary contribution. It is not surprising that many of
these same departments now have some difficulty sustaining a vital extension activity
and are losing public support because their clientele perceive them as not very useful.
When individuals or departments devote themselves solely to pleasing disciplinary peers,
they eventually lose much of their understanding of and relevance to the society and its
problems. This pathology afflicts entire colleges. Some colleges of agriculture have
become distinguished collections of disciplinary researchers unable to address the
problems of agriculture effectively. Many are unlikely to survive in the long run, for not
only will clientele desert them, but the college's rationale for independent existence
Perhaps a third source of this anti-empirical drift can be traced to the rapid
increase in the cost of well-designed data since World War II. The collection of most
social science data has remained a labor-intensive activity in a period of rapidly rising
labor costs. The increasing costs of data collection have more than offset cost savings in
data processing and dissemination. The rising value of time may have also had some
impact on the profession's attitude toward data via the substitution effects of the greatly
increased cost of graduate education.
The effect of this anti-empirical, disciplinary drift in the profession is a withdrawal
from effective problem solving. We see ourselves as economists with economic theory
and mathematical and statistical tools and at best we go out and apply them. We resist
multidisciplinary and empirical involvement. We are less and less focused on or
motivated by empirical work and problem solving. Consequently, we do not really learn
very much about problems, usually only the minimum needed to fit a model, and rarely go
beyond squinting at it through a data set collected by someone else for another purpose.
Sometimes we do no more than program a computer to squint at the data for us. Or we
use no data at all. So, we are less and less able to help people solve their problems. This
undermines the social value of agricultural economics and the capabilities that brought
the profession to where it is. It leaves agricultural economics without a culture capable
of sustaining extension or many types of applied research.
The model of an agricultural college department as a collection of "pure
disciplinarians" producing disciplinary and some applied disciplinary knowledge is a
pathological distortion of the land grant mission. Yet that is the model some colleges
and agricultural economics departments are now following. Just as pathological is the
purely applied model of a subject matter organization unconnected to the appropriate
range of supporting disciplinary capacity in teaching and research.
In agricultural economics research and graduate training, we must achieve a
mastery of economy theory and statistics. This requires a faculty well trained in
economics and statistics. But not every faculty member must be devoted entirely to
theory, econometrics or even economics. Indeed, to be successful in achieving their
multidisciplinary, subject matter and problem-solving purposes, agricultural economics
departments must be staffed with an eye to the appropriate mix of diverse disciplines,
skills and subject matter knowledge. The reward system must be capable of sustaining
that diversity. We cannot surrender the goals and culture of agricultural economics to
that of economics. If we do, we will have become at best second-rate economics
departments of which there is already a sufficiency.
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