An Insider’s View on the Value of Federal Research

Posted on July 14th, 2017

A Guest Post from Mike Haas, Retired, ARS-USDA

Mike Haas

Not long after receiving my doctorate in biochemistry I took a research position with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prior to retiring in 2014 I had spent my entire career, 33 years, with ARS. I had a chance to see federal research from within the system. Among the key aspects of that system were the following, which I believe pertain to federal research in general (exclusive, in some cases, of defense-related work):

• It was problem-solving in nature, with research goals based on the country’s needs. These goals, for example, could be safer or more nutritious food, improved soil health, new uses for crops produced in excess of current needs, or any of a myriad of other topics.

• There was daylight everywhere: Programs, goals, and outcomes were clearly published and publicized.

• The work was not conducted to advance the sales of any commercial product, as some work in the private sector might be. It was problem-, not profit-, oriented.

• The process had integrity and autonomy: Our results and conclusions were not dictated to us by management or the Administration. During my career I published over 120 articles, including approximately 80 research papers in peer reviewed scientific journals, a dozen book chapters and half a dozen U.S. Patents. I gave over 100 oral presentations describing work. Not one word that I authored was dictated to me by management. I am not aware of any colleague for whom that was not also true.

• We were allowed and encouraged to patent any invention that we made. Patents were licensable under terms that were designed to aid the flow of technology to the private sector rather than to generate large sums of money for the inventor or the government.

• We had full professional autonomy and were encouraged to interact with all parties (other than individuals and organizations from recognized terrorist countries) as necessary to advance the work and disseminate its results. Among our partners were citizens as well as peers in academic, private sector, or federal research, be they domestic or international, large or small firms. Large companies often have their own dedicated research and development teams, serving their interests. I came to see that in many ways we were the R and D team for the smaller firms and young industries – startups or small operations lacking the funds and staff to do dedicated research. We collaborated with all comers, irrespective of size.

• Research programs were up to 5 years in length, and continued beyond that if such could be justified. This led to the kind of long term, higher risk type of work that is in some cases needed and in many cases rare these days.

• In cases of ‘crisis’ – some incident that needed a rapid research response (e.g. outbreak of a new plant disease, food poisoning incident) – researchers were detailed into that area to assist in quickly developing appropriate responses to the threat.

Aerial shot of the Eastern Regional Research Center, USDA, near Philadelphia. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

I spent my career at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, one of the ARS ‘Utilization labs’ that were built in the late 1930s as part of a major effort to develop new uses for the crops produced by America’s farmers. Out of this work have come thousands of research publications and patents, which developed or assisted in developing a host of new products and processes including dehydrated mashed potatoes (and hence Pringles!); soy ink; permanent press cotton fabric; frozen foods with increased retention of flavor, color, and texture; Lact-Aid; and more efficient processes for the production of biofuels.

Much of my own research fell into the last of these categories. Beginning in the early 1990s, the desire to promote energy independence in this country and to provide new markets for our crops led researchers to begin exploring the production of what became known as ‘biodiesel’. Made from vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel can replace petroleum-derived diesel fuel while burning cleaner and thus reducing the emission of pollutants. It was an obvious new outlet for U.S. lipids, and so my group and others in ARS began investigating various aspects related to its production and use. Today biodiesel is an accepted fuel used throughout the country (and world), powering vehicles and generators and heating homes. Twenty years ago, however, it was a boutique, rebel fuel of which much more was unknown, even unimagined, than known. I and my group conducted a variety of investigations on feedstocks, production and purification methods, quality assessment and certification, engine operation, blending, stability, storage, transport, field handling and use, and a migraine’s headache worth of other challenges. In the early 1990s no major diesel engine manufacturer approved the use of biodiesel in its engines. That many research hurdles have been overcome since that time is attested to by the fact that today virtually all engine manufacturers approve the use of biodiesel; and while it was a pipedream in 1995 to imagine producing a million gallons of biodiesel in this country, last year the industry that grew from this work produced and sold over 2 billion gallons of fuel. This has increased the economic viability of U.S. farms and rural communities, enhanced the country’s energy independence, and brought a clean burning biofuel into the nation’s fuel pool. It is a true success story, one in which my lab, other USDA labs, and many other researchers played a part. It was most gratifying to me that when I retired the National Biodiesel Board, the member organization, face, and voice of the U.S. biodiesel industry, presented me with a lifetime achievement award. This stands for me as a statement of the value of at least some federal research.

Filling up a truck on biodiesel. Photo: Spencer Thomas/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Based on my experiences I see federal research as extremely valuable. As I have outlined above, it is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Americans, and is conducted within a framework designed to maximize its integrity, reliability, impact, and availability. It is also very efficacious: I am aware of two studies conducted during my career that assessed the economic impact of ARS research. These analyses determined that every dollar invested yielded between 14 and 20 dollars in benefits for the country. That’s a strong statement of the value of the work, a measure of what will be lost to all of us if programs are dropped, and a return on investment that I’ll sign up for any day.

Following receipt of a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the U. of Wisconsin, Mike Haas went on to a career with the Agricultural Research Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. During his over 30 years with ARS-USDA his research ranged from sophisticated studies of applied enzymology to the development of the simplest of methods for the production of biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced from U.S. farm products that both replaces and burns cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel. During his research career Mike also served as an officer in relevant professional societies and as Associate Editor of a scientific journal. Now retired, he serves as a student mentor with the National Biodiesel Board and, after 40 years in labs and offices, enjoys a multitude of outdoor activities.

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