Washington growers depend on researchers to solve problems

Growers put up money to solve specific problems — to counter pests, breed better performing varieties, develop new production techniques.

Published on November 9, 2017 8:44AM

Last changed on November 9, 2017 10:05AM

Jim McFerson

Dan Wheat/Capital Press File

Jim McFerson

Wallace Stanley Sayre, a political scientist and Columbia University professor, in the 1950s quipped that university politics are so intense because the stakes are so low.

Faculty and administrators involved in a kerfuffle at Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences might disagree.

At stake, at least some faculty say, is academic freedom.

The WSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors says that 30 ag school faculty members claim commodity commissions exercise an outsize influence over research. They fear failing to meet objectives or getting crosswise with commodity groups can lead administrators to withhold tenure or take other adverse career actions.

Administrators deny they or the faculty members are under the thumb of commodity groups funding research.

We’ve seen scant evidence that commodity commissions are overtly pressing administrators to take action against specific researchers. The researchers we spoke with seemed more upset with administrators.

Whether administrators, on their own initiative, are telegraphing any perceived concerns is a different matter. Some researchers say administrators don’t want to lose funding so they do the industry’s bidding. Administrators say that’s not the case.

Under no circumstances should commodity groups paying for research, or others lending financial support to a university, have sway over tenure or other personnel matters.

Neither should anyone expect specific outcomes. A lot of good ideas just don’t pan out.

Also clear, we think, is the question of how much input those funding research should have in how research is conducted or what the goal of that research should be.

In a perfect world, there would be money for scientists to study whatever they wanted, however they wanted. But the world is a long way from being perfect.

Growers put up money to solve specific problems — to counter pests, breed better performing varieties, develop new production techniques. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a worthy ideal, but growers can really only fund those projects that serve their own interests.

In cooperation with the experts who perform the research, we think growers have the right to set expectations.

“The bottom line is, scientists can choose not to apply (or) choose to apply for funding, and if you’re funded to do a project, those are the objectives,” Jim McFerson, the director of WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee and a former Tree Fruit Research Commission manager, said. “If you’re not making progress, funding doesn’t happen by magic.”

The one who pays the fiddler calls the tune.


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