The corporations, the ag research, and the money

Jun 13, 2012

A report in April from the Washington based environmental group Food and Water Watch researched the relationship between public universities and the corporations that give the schools agriculture research grants. The study found that corporate money was accounting for a large part of funding to agriculture schools all around the country, including the University of Missouri.

The report, titled “Public Research, Private Gain,” said between 2007 and 2010, MU’s Plant Sciences division received $16.4 million in private grants, which by their calculations accounted for 42 percent of the departments’ grant functions.  The report also showed that MU’s Veterinary Medicine department received $6.1 million in private grants, which was 63 percent of its department grants between 2004 and 2010.

Tim Schwab at Food and Water Watch and had a large hand in the report.  He says companies like Monsanto, Dow Agro science and Syngenta were common donors to the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources department.

“Those are kind of the big sponsors or the usual suspects that you would expect for a plant science department,” Schwab said.

Marc Linit is the Associate Dean for Research and Extension for the College of Agriculture.  He says the companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Croplife have all provided grants to the college.  But he says the report’s calculations are misleading.  The report says it analyzed online databases and obtained information through the Freedom of Information Act requests, but Linit says those figures included grants that just go directly to researchers in those departments.  So, he says the percentages of funding from private interests directly to the school are lower.

“The relationship isn’t between the company and the college, per se.  It’s between a particular research group within a company and a particular researcher or group of researchers at this institution.  I think sometimes the story gets told that it seems there is a contract between company A and this college,” Linit said.

Donna Stearns is the grants and contracts administrator for the college of veterinary medicine.  She says the research is not really on a contractual basis either.

“In cases like that, it’s generally speaking it’s not ‘here’s money, go figure out why this is the way it is.’   So it’s not so much that they give us X number of dollars to solve their problem; a lot of the times it’s the PI who is knowledgeable in that area and has the idea,” Stearns said.

The college of agriculture, food and natural resources provides information about its funding on its website.  It also has site that is searchable by sponsor, division and department. For the year 2010, it cites a total of almost $32 million in grants, with 69 percent coming from the federal government and only 7.6 percent is from the private sector.  Stern says another form of transparency is how the school of veterinary medicine provides a newsletter that notes the rewards the school received three times a year, as well.

Kathleen Manning is a Public Relations Manager for Monsanto.  In a written statement to KBIA, Manning wrote that the company was “proud of its contributions to land-grant universities and support of university agricultural research.”  The statement also said Monsanto made a $100,000 grant to the University for a three-year Program to support undergraduate research in plant sciences.

Schwab says it’s important people know where this money comes from, though.

“I mean, I can understand an administrator’s perspective that they need to get whatever money wherever they can, at this point of economic posterity in the government. But I do think that when they takeprivate money there are strings attached,” Schwab said.

The report cites a study from the University of California that researched the benefits of eating chocolate, with more than $15 million donated by the Mars Corporation, who then used it to show the benefits of eating chocolate.  Linit says those types of examples only arise when a special researcher has an agenda.  He says he can’t claim there’s absolutely no abuse, but says if the school didn’t uphold a standard of unbiased expertise, no company would come to them in the first place.  He also says the university will not accept grants that restrict graduate student or researcher publishing.

The report also compares how universities are affected by corporations when academic buildings or research labs are named after them.  For example, on the University of Missouri has the Monsanto Auditorium or the Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Hall.

“It’s tricky to pair apart the linkage between a corporation naming a building and the influence that it can bring, but it’s hard to keep track of all the corporate money that’s going into towards naming buildings, to find chairs at different universities, to fund individual professors.  But I think the influence there is very real.  It sort of has this branding effect on the campus,” Schwab said.

Linit, however, says those auditoriums actually provide a nice place for conferences and places where talented people can share their work.

“I really don’t think that has any impact and once there’s a name out there, it’s just a name.  I’m sure it doesn’t have much impact at all on the faculty because it becomes so familiar.  We don’t even call Anheuser-Busch that anymore.  We call it ABNR,” Linit said.

Regardless, Schwab says it’s all about being informed.

“I think there should be a robust debate on campus, for example, that the school has their eyes open and the students have their eyes open to see if this is really the right way forward for the school,” Schwab said.

The Public Research, Private Gain report can be found on the Food and Water Watch website.  The grants the College of Agriculture receive can be seen on the funding page on their website.