Monday, October 09, 2006

Homeland security; E. coli, and diminished funding & BARC

The Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center with research facilities spanning all areas of food, horticulture and agriculture is in trouble. The facilities constitute a national laboratory comparable with Los Alamos, but the federal funds are stagnate and have been for the past decade. Increases have totaled 2.7%(per year; or 33% fpr the ten year period correction made 11/18/06) while the consumer price index has risen 26%. Energy costs have risen 40% even with a 20% reduction in demand. Today we are afraid of our fresh greens. Who is researching the science behind the problem?

Now withstanding spinach and E. coli, among the achievements of the people and programs of BARC are the following:
· viroids and spiroplasmas—two new life forms shown to cause many previously puzzling plant diseases
· previously unknown protozoan parasites that cause human and livestock disease, and is developing means to control them
· “spray-can” technology for insecticides
· DEET, 50 years on arguably the best topical mosquito repellant on the market
· artificial insemination for poultry, swine, and cattle
· non-destructive instrumentation for measuring fruit quality—and a technology that revolutionized the world’s grain marketing
· Phytochrome – the molecule responsible for controlling the effect of light on plant flowering and germination
· Plant breeding programs (e.g., New Guinea impatiens ,’Atlantic’ potato (the number one chipping variety in the U.S.), Roma tomato, and reintroduction of the American elm)
· Super-critical cold stage electron microscopy to determine snow flake and ice structure, which has tremendous impact on the worlds’ hydrologic cycle for quantitatively predicting water runoff from snow, packs.
· For the chocolate industry: Identifying individual clones of the global coca germplasm collections
· The scientific citation index ranks approximately 20% of BARC’s scientists among the top 1% of agricultural scientists worldwide. One scientist has been the-most cited scientist in the field of animal health globally for the past ten years.

The research authority of BARC is such that the scientists working there are in the top percentile for having their work cited by other scientist worldwide. Now for fiscal year 07, 1/3 of the research units will not be able to meet their salary budgets. Because of this federal atrophy, the number of PhD’s has dropped 18% in the last ten years.

And why should you care? Honey bees under attack, spinach unsafe, turkeys and pork suspect, beef and milk safety, and the list goes on. And funding does not. Why? Because we take the science behind food safety for granted, and do not worry about what invasive or native organism may attack. We worry instead about explosives at airports, because that danger is immediately tangible, and makes great headlines. Withering potatoes and dying citrus trees are hard to explain in 30 seconds.

The major areas of study at BARC include:

Crop & Animal Production and Protection
Natural Resources & the Environment
Human Nutrition Research
Mission Critical Databases
Leader in the Systematics of insects, fungi, nematodes and parasites of agricultural importance
Fast Response to New and Emerging Concerns, e.g. perchlorate in milk, soybean rust
Developing Organic farming technologies

We propose to spend hundreds of millions to build a wall to keep neighbors out; we strangle work which identifies and attempts to stop the importation of diseases and insects which could disrupt our food supply as well as our natural areas and home gardens. World class collections of pathogens, animal parasites, insects and plants and seeds are seriously under funded; on is stored in the basement of a 60 year-old barn sustained with a minimal budget.

Politically, BARC falls within one congressional district with in one state. This means that earmarking looks like pork, and for the White House, there is no political gain in funding one district. The concentration of effort at one site allows the research programs to take a broad, systems-based approach to solving problems. Politically, it seems to be the strategy today of the federal government to break up this concentration and spread the research among many congressional districts. This stratagem makes sense if you are one of the districts getting money for research facility, but it destroys the cohesiveness of the whole, and limits the power of multi-disciplinary approaches.

BARC stands at a crossroad. To continue as the nation’s premier agricultural research center BARC must: attract and retain highest quality scientists; also update and upgrade its facilities, modernize its equipment, and acquire cutting-edge research tools. If BARC is to continue its historical leadership, adequate funding must be there. Yet trends are not encouraging for the following:

BARC needs to continually add new scientific methodology to keep up with rapid developments in science that push technology forward. Developing these methodologies are essential for the research workforce to stay at the cutting edge of technology development. BARC must add new capabilities as program directions emerge through redirection of existing program resources or through new resources. BARC must also maintain and grow its critical mass of scientists in order to holistically address the needs of farmers and ranchers as well as the American consumer.
b. Core Capabilities
BARC’s core strengths— dedicated expert personnel, specialized infrastructure, modern equipment, a supportive and facilitating research community, etc.—must be maintained, and continually modernized to keep pace with national and international research standards. In particular, core staff capabilities must be continuously re-energized as scientists retire and the work force changes.
Impact on business operations
Without significantly increased funding, research programs will be cut further in order to operate the aged facilities. The ability to follow new research leads or initiate new high priority research direction will be drastically curtailed unless other programs are reduced or eliminated.
BARC has 1100 federal employees and a total workforce of about 1800. About 290 employees are PhDs on the permanent staff. BARC also hosts visiting scientists and students from around the world. The BARC salary budget is about $90M/yr. This has an impact of about $250M on the local economy. About half of BARC employees live in Prince Georges County. BARC also spends tens of millions of dollars each year on supplies, equipment, and construction.

If you are interested in helping, or for more information, please write me at I am trying to facilitate a meeting on November 17th , 2006 in Beltsville. Reports will be presented and a tour of the facilities will be included.

I hope to present a history with pictures at a later time. '

Til then, remember that sometimes we need to look further than today; we need to reach and set a distant goals built on current dreams to solve tomorrows' problems.

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