Industry Support Is Important for Penn State
Posted: February 14, 2014
I have spent my professional career in the mid-Atlantic region, but only the last 9 years in Pennsylvania. When I was at other universities, I was envious of the political and financial support that Penn State faculty and county educators received from SHAP. Over the past couple of decades the financial support did not keep up with inflation, so SHAP recently made a commitment to raise $250,000 per year for research. The PVGA, Potato Growers and Christmas Tree Growers also provide funding for research. I would like to explain why this support is so important and what will happen without it.
The five sources of funding for colleges of agriculture at Land Grant Universities include federal, state, and county appropriates, as well as tuition, and grants and contracts. Over the past 40 years, federal and state funding has not kept pace with inflation and has often been cut. However, tuition and county funding have increased. In some states county funding has not increased and extension has all but disappeared in those states. The other source of funding that has increased is grants and contracts, which now account for about one-third of our college’s budget. In the 9 years I have been at Penn State our appropriations from the state have increased three years, they were cut three times and we were level funded three years. The sum of the cuts is more than double the sum of the increases. Level-funding is better than being cut, but during years of level funding the college’s spending power is reduced by about $1.2 million due to increases in salary and benefits. The college’s budget from the state for 2013 was actually the same as it was in 1999 without adjusting for inflation. About 90% of the college’s budget is now in salaries, leaving very little money for operations. The budget cuts have resulted in fewer county educator and staff positions. Faculty positions have declined less because the college has found other sources of funds to pay some of the salaries, but the types of faculty positions that have been added to the college have drastically changed the college . Many of these positions are co-hires with institutes within the university. Institutes hire faculty with expertise to compete for large grants, and most of these grants involve basic research.
Another factor influencing hiring decisions is whether there is enough potential funding to support a productive research program. In the 1980s, the college provided me with a technician, a graduate student most years, $7,000 in annual operating funds, and the department paid for my travel to national meetings and paid page charges when I published in scientific journals (page charges amounted to about $1,200 per year). New faculty members today receive a startup package, often including a half-time technician for 3 years, 5 years of graduate-student support, some equipment and some operating funds for three years. After three years they can expect to receive about $1,500 in operating funds from the department. After three years they are expected to obtain external funding for a technician, graduate students, supplies, travel, page charges and normal operations. If they are unable to obtain adequate funding, then they will not be able to develop the kind research program that is expected to get tenure. Therefore, department heads and deans are reluctant to hire faculty members into positions where they will likely fail due to inadequate funding.
Last fall I participated in a fruit grower’s meeting in Idaho and learned about a strong partnership between the University of Idaho and Idaho’s agricultural industries. Due to budget cuts in 2009 the Dean planned to close three research centers including the Parma Research & Extension center where fruit research is performed. Operations at one center were suspended. The activities at a second center have been scaled back, but the center is still operating because the barley, wheat and potato commissions provided financial support. The Parma Research & Extension Center is still operating at full capacity because Simplot, a Boise-based agriculture business, the Treasure Valley Agricultural coalition, and the Idaho Fruit Growers are contributing $400,000 a year for five years.
Another example of collaboration between industry and a university is the recent investment by fruit growers in Washington. Washington tree fruit growers pay assessments to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and the growers passed a special assessment to raise $27 million to endow six faculty positions, five extension educator positions, and operating funds for the two fruit research centers.
The reason I went through all of this is to emphasize that industry support not only allows researchers and extension personnel to solve industry problems, but industry funding is becoming a requirement for hiring applied researchers and extension workers. We recently hired a viticulturist because the wine grape industry offered to cover part of the salary. This is essentially a co-hire, but we partnered with industry rather than an institute to hire an applied researcher. In the past 30 years we have lost about two-thirds of the pomologists in the U.S. The only states with substantial fruit programs are those with industries large enough to provide financial and political support for those programs. As public funding for higher education and research continue to decline, the horticultural industries will be expected to increase their financial support. About 60% of the applied researchers in the Plant Science Department can retire in the next 6 or 7 years. Many of these positions will not be replaced, but some will be replaced if there is adequate industry support. Research and education is an investment in the future. I commend SHAP for investing in the future of the fruit industry and I hope that other commodity groups will follow their lead.