A New Focus on Plant Sciences

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Science  19 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6007, pp. 1021
DOI: 10.1126/science.1198153

Plants are essential to the survival of our planet—to its ecology, biodiversity, and climate. They maintain human health by providing the basis for nutrition, shelter, clothing, and energy. The study of plants has yielded fundamental insights that have reshaped our understanding of the world and has enabled major human needs to be addressed. But the world population is expected to increase from six billion to nine billion people by the year 2050, challenging humanity to develop more efficient ways to harness plants for meeting growing global needs. Vigorous high-quality scientific research in the plant sciences will be crucial for the world's future. Yet basic plant science research has struggled to take root in the United States. For more than a decade, agricultural research writ large has received only 2% of total federal spending on R&D. Federal support for fundamental plant science research has been even less: The amount awarded on a competitive basis to academic and research institutions constitutes only about 2% of extramural spending for life sciences research ($382 million out of $17 billion in 2005).


Why is plant science not a federal research priority? For one thing, the United States has benefited from robust private-sector investment focused on crop plants, with the Monsanto Company alone investing $1.098 billion in R&D in 2009. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with its broad mandate for applied research that emphasizes crops and animals, has only a modest program of plant research grants. Other USDA research funds are directed to agricultural experiment stations at state land-grant universities, which tend to deal with more local agricultural problems.

The Biology Directorate within the U.S. National Science Foundation funds broad areas of research outside the biomedical sciences but currently has no programs dedicated to fundamental plant biology. The National Institutes of Health, which funds the vast majority of life sciences research in the United States, has for the most part viewed plant science as the responsibility of other agencies, despite the fact that corn (maize) and thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) are excellent model organisms for basic biomedical research. Indeed, many fundamental biological processes that regulate human physiology have been clarified by studying analogous processes in plants. For example, it was basic plant biology research that revealed how small regulatory RNA molecules can ratchet up or dial down gene activity in response to different environments.

But there are some signs that U.S. plant science may receive more emphasis in the decade ahead. An outstanding plant scientist, Roger Beachy, now serves as director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a new organization that will provide competitively awarded research grants. The 2009 U.S. National Academies report A New Biology for the 21st Century has called explicit attention to the role that fundamental plant science must play to address major societal challenges. And our two nongovernmental organizations—the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—have recently taken steps to encourage this shift in national priorities. We are holding a competition to identify 15 outstanding plant scientists at institutions across the United States who will receive 5-year awards based solely on individual scientific excellence. These scientists are expected to have an outsized impact in many fields of basic plant biology and to span a broad spectrum of disciplines.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Brazil, India, and China are countries that have or are making serious research commitments that balance the needs of applied and basic plant sciences research. The United States should be among them. We have created this new effort to serve as a clarion call to the private, nonprofit, and government sectors at a time of great challenge, for both our nation and our planet.

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