Decline in state funding for research increases reliance on private donors
By SEAN ELLIS
The Idaho Potato Commission is considering retargeting the research dollars it provides the University of Idaho to ensure potato growers get the most bang for their buck.
That could affect UI agricultural researchers' efforts on potatoes and a variety of Idaho crops.
IPC President and CEO Frank Muir said the commission isn't talking about reducing the amount of money it gives the university.
"It's not a matter of overall funding," he said. "It's, are we spending that money on the right things to ensure we get the best return on our investment for the industry?"
With a top UI research official present, IPC commissioners recently had a frank discussion about the hundreds of thousands of dollars they give the university each year for various research projects.
State funding for UI's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has been reduced by more than 20 percent over the past two years. Federal funding has mostly held steady but is losing ground because of inflation, said Mike Thornton, superintendent of UI's Parma Research and Extension Center and the university's liaison to the potato commission.
Roughly half the funding comes from state and federal dollars and the other half from a combination of commodity groups and grants, according to Thornton, who is also director of the Idaho Potato Center.
IPC board members are concerned their research dollars are increasingly being used to cover costs, including technical help, phone bills and fertilizer, that used to be borne by state dollars.
Jeff Harper, chairman of IPC's research and education committee, said UI's entire funding structure needs to be revamped.
Harper and other IPC board members also said they believe in the benefit of UI's research. They said they weren't talking about reducing their commitment to the university.
"We don't want to lose researchers. They probably have the greatest research in the world," Harper said. "We need to do this with a little bit of kid gloves."
Thornton said the IPC is not alone in its concern about research dollars.
"I think a lot of these commodity groups are having the same discussion about how they can best spend the money they have," he said.
IPC board members say part of the problem is that potato growers aren't seeing the results of UI's research in language they can understand.
Thornton said a lot of the positions that were cut because of reduced funding were people tasked with getting the results of research to growers, and he admits that's been a problem recently.
"That's something that needs to be fixed," he said, adding that researchers have already been told they need to write grower friendly articles explaining the value of their research.
Pat Kole, the IPC's vice president of legal and government affairs, said the commission will look at several ideas, including the possibility of dedicating money for tenured positions.