Telling the Story of Scientific Success in Agriculture
Outbreaks of E. coli that sickened hundreds were traced to romaine lettuce—but the current science of food safety could not figure out the source of these outbreaks, so all romaine lettuce across the country was pulled from restaurants and grocery stores and destroyed. Before that, farmers destroyed tens of millions of chickens to stop an outbreak of avian flu from spreading because there was no other scientifically proven method to prevent transmission.
In the past, these problems have been solved by scientists funded in large part by federal research grants. But funding levels in the past several decades have not kept pace with issues that farmers face. The US Department of Agriculture’s flagship research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), has never come close to being fully funded; every year, other programs are prioritized and AFRI can only fund less than one quarter of the grants considered to be worthy.
Burness worked with the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation to tell stories of agricultural research success, eschewing a more traditional “gloom and doom” approach. We helped SoAR create a suite of reports called Retaking the Field that explained how federally funded researchers provided innovations and improvements—such as genetic tests and databases for foodborne pathogens—that farmers and food producers have used in their operations. We also worked with SoAR spokespeople in creating a number of opinion pieces that advocated for increased federal funding in top-tier, political and trade media outlets.
SoAR’s efforts have increased the scope of AFRI’s program by more than 25 percent over the past four years of increasingly austere federal budgets. SoAR has also tapped the universities involved in the Retaking the Field reports to create a higher education coalition, FedByScience, to help continue shining the spotlight on the need to further expand the capacity of USDA’s research efforts.