Having dedicated 40+ years to the aquaculture profession in various roles, this issue is near and dear to me. A recent study on public agriculture research spending concluded that future growth in US agriculture is predicated on long-term investments in public agricultural research and development (R&D).
Productivity growth also springs from agricultural extension, farmer education, rural infrastructure, private agricultural R&D, and technology transfers, but the force of these factors is compounded by public agricultural research. Unlike more established and larger agriculture industry sectors, there is very limited private sector R&D investment in aquaculture because the US sector is relatively small, diffuse and diversified. Also because of its broad diversity, much research and development are done on a species, environment and system specific basis.
Federal spending cuts coupled with cuts in state budgets dedicated to many higher education programmes, such as land grant university agriculture experiment stations, are already closing out or reducing vital capacity for some aquaculture programmes. Future increases in public spending for aquaculture are increasingly uncertain especially if there is a lack of optimism and new momentum for future growth.
US aquaculture R&D and extension programmes are relatively young compared to the long-standing programs in traditional agriculture and fisheries. Much of today’s aquaculture capacity and competencies have been created within the past 30 years. A critical mass of trained aquaculture expertise, experience and infrastructure have been achieved and have attracted industry partnerships and support by solving many important real-world problems.
These programmes have generated and moved new discovery knowledge and technologies to application by industry. Some people always question the value and impact of federal or publicly funded research and development. Nevertheless, new sciences, basic discoveries and novel tools often take time to reach an application stage as they create the foundation for new understanding and knowledge. Concerns about the value of public research are often related to anticipating tangible benefits or effectively solving some very complex problems in aquatic systems over impractically short time frames.
We all need to continuously seek steps to shorten the time lag from discovery to application, and public efforts should focus on this sense of urgency in problem-solving integrated with addressing longer-term questions. The short-term view can mislead the actual progress realised in efficiency and productivity gains over the past decade and more. Many improvements and achievements have come from day in day out scientific endeavor.
Technologies, production levels, and profitability have improved for many species sectors and production systems that actually support and even enhance today’s often-cited sustainability goals. The examples of science driven progress are numerous and likely clear to all when evaluated over the past several decades (think catfish, salmon, trout, and oysters as some examples).
These public investments were made to realise the potential that existed and still is largely under- developed in the United States to grow an economically important and ‘sustainable’ industry across the diversity of our country’s natural resources and aquatic ecosystems from inland freshwater to coastal marine with a large menu of established, emerging and new future species. In some cases, this potential has been developed but it still faces many diverse challenges for broader realization.
Federal-state R&D and educational investments with private-sector entrepreneurs and pioneers created the current status of the blue revolution in the United States. Continued federal and state investments and those by private-sector companies and pioneers will also be the critical drivers for the future pace and direction of aquaculture development in our Nation.
Certainly other factors beyond traditional R&D and extension programs continue to challenge aquaculture growth attributed in part to profitability, risks, policies, regulations, public perception, global trade, and other factors.
The recent and further anticipated spending cuts to federal agency budgets should cause reflection on the long term investments that have created our ‘core’ capacity of scientific and educational competencies over decades to help realise more of the Nation’s potential for balanced economic development and ecological sustainability. Extension programmes in some states are being impacted particularly hard as budget savings are mostly tied to cutting salaries and positions.
Many positions are not tenure track but continuing annual appointments. Publicly supported programmes need to be accountable for their performance, relevancy, and quality in delivering valued public goods and benefits.
The US aquaculture community should realise that these assets are critically important today and needed in the future. The industry and other vested stakeholders should assess those public assets regarded as vital to future development and profitable positions in real-world domestic and global markets.
Because of budget line categories and new vulnerabilities in the budgetary process, some public programs with long-standing reputations for high performance have been terminated and others may be lost over the next several years. Many agency and departmental heads will be faced with difficult choices on which programs to maintain, reduce or eliminate. Once some of the ‘core’ capacity and competencies erode and weaken, renewal of these programmes in the future becomes even more uncertain.
With the loss of core competencies and capacities comes concerns about recruiting top talent required to transition US aquaculture into the next generation of systems, technologies, and practices.
This new talent will be required to gain competitive and profitable advantages in seafood markets as well as the ability to address new challenges related to shifting societal priorities and use of natural resources for commercial production. The following are examples of the level of recent losses of funds for several USDA agencies and programmes specific to aquaculture:
- Animal and Plant Protection Service-Wildlife Services (APHIS): $223,000
- Agricultural Research Service (ARS): $4,926,700
- National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS): $800,000
- National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA): $9,793,000
The changing budgetary land- scape will drive new relationships between and among publicly funded research and extension programs, industry, and other NGO partners. It is not business as usual today, nor will it be in the future.
The success of solving complex problems or implementing new initiatives will depend more and more on increasing efficiencies by smartly integrating unique programme strengths into new models of collaboration to take full advantage of existing infrastructures for research, incubators, pilot programmes, and demonstrations.
This new era will require stronger leveraging of more limited resources that mobilize multiple disciplines on multidisciplinary problems as new standards for best management and business practices. Funding opportunities are becoming more competitive with more people vying for fewer assets. Remaining aquaculture assets will be more heavily relied upon by academia and industry.
Funding pressures may shift expertise and research to more basic science programs in other federal agencies with limited interest in industry development compared to fundamental science. The aquaculture community may likely need to create new strategies, partnerships and collaborations for success in extramural funding programs in an increasingly higher competitive funding environment.
Previous non-competitive funding options (Congressionally-directed line item grants) have been practically eliminated at this time.
The direct impacts of reduced public funding are especially difficult for early-career and junior faculty at universities and graduate students who depend upon stipends to support postgraduate studies, not to mention advancing science knowledge needed to solve industry problems today and into the future. Some top performers in our aqua- culture research, education, and extension communities have already been released, reassigned, or retired.
Many individuals trained in the large aquaculture cohort from the 1970s, who were lured into diverse fields of business, academia and government during an earlier pioneering era of challenges, will soon be retiring from aquaculture professionally, seeking new directions in their lives.
Newer cohorts of pioneers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and educators will be needed to forge a new direction and the future legacy for aquaculture in the Nation. The extent of an aquaculture trained workforce today and into the future will be driven by employment opportunities across all sectors. More public sector jobs will likely be directly linked to the vitality and growth of industry sectors at all levels.
Critical thinkers, interdisciplinary team-builders, risk- takers, tacticians, industry leaders and practical problem solvers will be crucial to navigate successfully not only new industry growth, science, technology and education but equally important arenas of policy and regulations that are in luenced by luid political and societal norms.
With the diversity of aquaculture interests among the many stakeholders in the US, there are few issues or events of national scope that unify this diverse community into new effective coalitions with shared interests and objectives.
Such national high impact issues can mobilize the breadth of our Nation’s aquaculture community from industry associations, academic institutions, professional organisations, and NGOs. It has taken over three decades and, in some cases longer, to build our Nation’s core capacity and competency at many institutions. Today many are at risk.
It is with this perspective in mind that the broader US aquaculture community might consider what vital assets need to be maintained and what are new effective models and approaches to optimise performance of the remaining public resources to gain the best public value to the US aquaculture industry and to the public.
The challenges are real. These are extraordinary circumstances that should create a new sense of urgency and mobilize interested parties to craft a new vision for collaboration, cooperation, and communication as a united community to optimise efficiencies and productivities with highly valued public funded assets.