Five Truths II: public good or private benefit

I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored my first truth (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  This post examines the second of “my truths.”


My Truth Two:   the public agricultural research and education (land grant) system created to serve the public good is influenced by the private agenda of multinational  corporations, large agricultural commodity groups, and disciplinary-bound science societies.

The extent of agreement with this statement among all survey participants (see the introduction blog on my truths for background on the survey) was clear, with 90% choosing strong or full agreement.  Its easy to criticize scientists whose work directly benefits corporations willing provide research dollars, yet the situation is not quite that simple.

Agricultural researchers and educators may begin their university careers full of idealism and hope that they might contribute to feeding the world’s hungry and preserving the natural environment.  Something happens along the way however to redirect their work toward more limited (and more publishable) objectives.

Nevertheless, I believe that ‘just below the surface‘ of many academics is a hopeful visionary, still dreaming of making a difference in the world. The evaluation system which requires scientists to conform to the expectations of their discipline-bound professional societies (which determine if they are able to publish their work) limit their ability to address complex real-world problems.

One of the survey participants wrote;

The social and cultural environment in graduate school and in ladder rank positions pushes people to work alone using reductionist methods which limits the ability to research real world problems that exist today”

And another participant wrote:

If researchers from different disciplines don’t figure out how to work together, we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us.”

True – but it will take more than individuals from different disciplines working together to create a more sustainable agricultural system.  As long as the goal of research is primarily the short-term economic success of those groups holding financial power (mostly multinational corporation or large agricultural commodity groups) there will be little progress on the path toward long-term sustainability.   Another participant wrote:

…dollars and cents, has become the dominant, if not the only, criteria by which we measure the value of everything — including publicly funded research and education.”

I agree that economic efficiency is one important goal for research and education, however it is insufficient alone and may actually be harmful when other goals such as environmental quality and social justice are neglected.  University presidents are fond of citing their institution as an “engine of economic growth” for the state and nation.  But this narrow representation of the public mission of the land grant university encourages much of agricultural science to be directed toward new technologies that prioritize short-term financial return – often at the expense of long-term sustainability.  One survey participant suggested an alternative role for the university;

…the US does not have a clear policy on the role of agriculture and the future of rural America.  A major failure of land grants in my opinion is their lack of leadership in helping the nation develop such goals. The only goals articulated are the next technical fix.”

Lacking a grand vision, technical solutions dominate the research of agricultural scientists.   But technical solutions to the complex problems created by industrial agriculture (such as environmental degradation and social upheaval) may do more harm than good.  While the reductionist approach may keep the discipline-bound research machinery of the university going, it does little to solve complex societal problems.

University administrators encourage scientists to address environmental and social problems but at the same time support a faculty evaluation system that rewards the acquisition of outside funding for their research.  Few sustainable agriculture organizations or public interest groups can provide significant financial support, so faculty must turn to those large agricultural commodity groups and multinational corporations that have a stake in maintaining the status quo rather than supporting a transition to a more sustainable food and farming system.  These organizations can influence the direction of public research either directly through gifts and grants (which thereby leverage public monies) or indirectly by serving as advisers on various public planning and review committees.

Corporate partnerships are sought and celebrated, thus driving the research agenda of the public university to serve the private needs of their corporate partners.  This is not the fault of individual faculty members but is part of aa larger systemic problem.

Public universities are caught in an archetypical “fixes that fail” feedback loop, in which they find their budgets being squeezed by a public that doesn’t entirely trust the university (or any large institution for that matter).  University leaders look to their friends in industry and among the big agricultural commodity groups for political and financial help – and what happens?  Public distrust is confirmed and the public budgets get squeezed even more.  University leaders then turn back to their private partners and ask for more help (and money).  It is a vicious cycle, spinning public universities in a direction away from their primary mission of serving the public good.

While it is possible for public/private partnerships to be created that serve both the public good as well as the private benefit of funders, this requires a transparent financial system, clear articulation of mission, public review of the partnership, and honest and open discussion about the purpose and limits of the partnership.  University scientists who are concerned with a public system that serves the private benefit of groups with economic and political power may feel isolated and afraid to challenge a system which celebrates such partnerships.  While we celebrate leadership in the abstract, most academics shy away from this topic.

There are few university leaders (I’ve known a few by the way) willing to encourage a public dialogue on how private funding might influence the public research agenda.  We might ask, where are the courageous voices telling the truth that we read about in novels and see in the cinema?  Where are the elders – wise with experience?  Turning again to some lines of poetry, T.S. Eliot asks;

Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

Have our leaders “deceived themselves” and become “quiet-voiced elders” on this topic? Again, I don’t blame the individual administrators (and I’ve known some courageous ones). The larger systemic problem is that most leaders become disconnected from those they are charged to serve over time.  This is true for the U.S. Congress, multinational corporations, large commodity groups, and university leaders – in fact all leaders of all hierarchical organizations.  My next blog will examine this problem.


I’d appreciate it if you would share your own thoughts in the comments box below.  To stay connected, please join my Facebook Group, Just Food Now, or follow my posts.  And if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our 15-credit online certificate or our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.

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