A Case for College Research

Public universities play a key role in making food better, faster, and stronger - and with budget cuts looming, the fight for funding is more important than ever
 A Case for College Research

The food industry has been in the public eye to an uncommon degree in recent years. Consumers can’t seem to get enough of celebrity chefs and beautifully composed photographs of tasting menus and baked goods. But food production today starts long before it reaches the kitchen. Behind the scenes, faculty and students at research universities around the world are developing new techniques that propel the food industry forward year after year.

With nine food system-related departments ranging in scope from dairy products technology to soil science, the range of projects underway at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences is quite broad. Associate Dean Mark D. Shelton, Ph.D., has been with the college since 1982, rising from Crop Science professor to lead the College of Agriculture’s research and graduate divisions. But his passion hasn’t seemed to fade over the years: his voice radiates with pride when discussing the many projects that his faculty and students are currently tackling. 

“There’s a lot of really cutting edge and innovative research that goes on related to food and nutrition,” he explains. “Students can graduate from our college and pretty much go into any sector of the food system.” At this moment alone, projects across the school’s departments include research into everything from water-saving technology in peach packaging to post-harvest contamination prevention to a system that could use a factory’s effluent gasses as a fuel to cultivate omega-3 fatty acids from algae.

But all of these studies are for the ultimate benefit of more than just students alone. Cal Poly and other schools like it are not just conducting this research in a vacuum – though many may think of food science research and development as something that goes on behind the closed doors of private industry labs, research universities play a large role in the industry.

“They come to us,” says Shelton, giving as an example a recent private sector project conducted between Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the Almond Board of California. It’s a natural partnership given San Luis Obispo’s close proximity to central California, where 99 percent of the U.S. almond supply is produced.

“The California almond industry is a multibillion dollar industry,” he notes. “The almond industry has paid our graduate students to study various aspects of the flowering of almonds so that they can better understand ways that you can maximize the yield of almonds.” As Shelton explains, working with graduate students provides private industries with expert research at less cost than it would take to hire professional researchers out of school.

“That’s typical of the private sector, in agriculture and in other businesses,” Shelton adds. “All kinds of businesses will hire university faculty as experts, as consultants and researchers, and then pay for graduate students to do work that actually gets done a lot cheaper than those folks could do it in-house. So public universities are really an engine of innovation and problem solving for the whole economy – it’s way beyond ag. The private schools do it as well – Stanford and USC, they do funded research as well that benefits the economy. But the public universities, which I’m most familiar with, do a tremendous service to the economy.”

It’s reasons like these that make Shelton a man on a mission. With the USDA and the FDA facing millions of dollars in budget cuts, public universities are feeling the effects. When I reach Shelton over the phone, he has just returned from a trip to Washington where he and a group of colleagues from such schools as Fresno State, Oregon State, and major agricultural player UC Davis have been fighting to gain support for federal funding of agricultural research at public universities.

“In the fiscal year we’re in right now, there’s about $ 4.5 million in grant money that goes to a system of about sixty colleges that have agriculture programs that are non-land grants,” he says. “We have $4.5million for research and education funding that was just cut from the fiscal year 2013 budget. That’s why we were in Washington last week – we were there talking to congressional and senatorial representatives about the need to restore that $4.5million.”

It’s not an easy argument to make. Public universities – let alone their disparate departments – are not the only entities seeking funding, and money is tight. “It’s a constant battle to keep that funding in place,” says Shelton. “It’s hard to make your case for funding agricultural research when you see such huge deficits looming. Everybody’s there in Washington making their case for their program, whether it’s agricultural research or health care for the elderly or you name it.”

But, though the argument may be difficult, it is also necessary. As Shelton explains, private sector grants are invaluable but tend to cover different types of projects than those sponsored by large federal grants. “You need the larger competitive grants that come from the federal agencies if you want to have good levels of funding for bigger projects with a bigger scope,” he notes. “If you’re working on smaller scale projects, sometimes a $10,000 grant from a commodity group or from a private foundation can get the work done. But if we’re going to continue to provide the level of service that we do to the food and ag industry, we need to have that federal funding in place.”

Conversely, it’s also about what the grants can do for the faculty and students at research universities, whether it’s maintaining their livelihoods or preparing them to enter a career in the future. “It’s important for our faculty to stay current in their fields,” says Shelton. “So these people who are working on extracting omega-3 fatty acids from algae, or peeling peaches with air knives, this is important for our faculty to know. Why? Because they teach students. Students learn brand new technologies, so they go to work and they know the new stuff.”  

For all of this – faculty, students, and the industry as a whole – schools are continuing to fight every day for funding that will allow university research to continue unabated. “I don’t think that’s widely understood, the value of higher education to our overall economic engine: a lot of innovations are coming out of this system,” says Shelton. “We’re out there hustling, trying to make that money continue to come.” 

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