Doug Buhler - June 23, 2020, testimony

MSU AgBioResearch Director Doug Buhler's June 23, 2020, testimony for Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges.

Good morning Chairman and Representative VanSingel and members of the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges. I’m Doug Buhler, director of Michigan State University AgBioResearch and MSU Assistant Vice President of Research and Innovation. Thank you for this opportunity to provide insight into the work of MSU AgBioResearch during these challenging times. And my bottom line message is that we have stayed open for business but are doing things in new and different ways.

MSU AgBioResearch is the lead unit at the University for Research in food, agriculture and natural resources.  Our scientific capacity is based in more than 340 researchers across eight colleges on Michigan State’s campus. Most researchers are within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, but we also have appointments in the colleges of natural science, engineering, and veterinary medicine, social science, among others. We focus on multi-disciplinary, problem-solving research linked to MSU Extension and industry.  Everything we do is designed either to solve a problem or create an opportunity.  Some would say “science with a mission”.

Our total budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 is approximately $125 million. About $35 million comes from the State of Michigan through our line in the Higher Education budget, and more than $7 million from federal capacity funds. Our researchers generate contracts and grants totaling the remaining $83 million.

The funds provided by the State of Michigan are leveraged well over 2.5 to 1 compared to funds coming from other sources. MSU is also regularly among the top five universities in the country to secure USDA competitive funds and are highly competitive for funds from other federal, private and foundation sources. 

As you all know, we are in unique and challenging times.  But even with these challenges we have been able to continue much of our work since the Governor issued the Stay Home, Stay Safe Executive Order under the waiver for agriculture.

With the support of senior leadership at MSU and in consultation with MSUE we were able to quickly stand up a process to prioritize, review and approve research and related travel.  IN ALL CASES SAFETY IS THE PRIMARY CONSIDERATION.  Areas open for consideration as essential were directly related to COVID-19, food production, animal health, environmental protection, perseveration of unique materials such as plant germplasm and related activities.  We gave priority to projects that have immediate impact on production, especially critical plant pests like SWD, tar spot of corn, continuing plant breeding programs, and long-term research.  

Our work is not limited to plant agriculture.  Animal units did not close, and we rapidly implemented necessary procedures to maintain health and safety of farm staff.  Critical research (e.g. health, nutrition, reproduction and animal welfare) conducted since emergence of the crisis at our facilities and commercial farms directly linked to needs of animal agriculture industries in MI.

To date we have reviewed nearly 400 requests for research with over 90% being approved.  And I am pleased to report that most of the projects funded by our industry partners are on track for completion as scheduled.  For those that have been delayed we will make accommodations to make good on our commitment.  Once we have completed the process, I expect that we’ll be approaching 75% of a usual level of field activity. 

With the field research portfolio largely established we are now well into the process of reopening campus labs.  As with field research, all faculty principle investigators are responsible for preparing laboratory safety plans.  These plans include training strategies for workers, safe distancing with plans and a sign-in and sign-out procedure, decontamination procedures and the mandatory wearing of cloth face masks among many other protocols.

Enough about process.  Let me give you a few examples around COVID-19:

  1. MSU’s water pollution microbiologist Joan Rose is chairing the Covid-19 Task Force for the International Water Association (IWA) Little is known about the virus in wastewater, but it could be an effective early warning system for infection and she is bringing it home to assist MSU and surrounding communities in tracking the novel coronavirus.

  2. MSU’s Jade Mitchell is ramping up her research at the risks of being exposed to the coronavirus.  She is part of a collaboration helping to understand the risks now and going forward.

  3. Scientific Animations Without Borders, also known as SAWBO, is assembling an educational intervention program to disseminate crucial information related to COVID-19 and other health risk in a wide range of languages. The program has traditionally been working in the international realm, but is not being made available to assist with non-English speaking workers in Michigan.

  4. MSU Public Health Expert Felicia Wu has been advocating for the use of proper personal protection equipment and social distancing for essential workers in the food industries. In addition, two of our ag economists -- have been very active in assessing the impacts of food supply chains and the economic impacts of COVID.

  5. Dairy farmers who have been hit hard with the decline in food service demand, and a decline in exports. Our researchers and educators having been working hard to support the industry and created a webinar series titled “Sharpen Your Dairy Skills While We Flatten the Curve,” in which a variety of experts present on various topics while giving producers a chance to ask questions and raise concerns.

  6. The Center for Research on Ingredient Safety has been regularly communicating on various topics related to COVID-19. Information on how to properly disinfect various surfaces and objects, risks related to food consumption and food safety.
  1. In light of COVID-19, we have decided to host field days virtually this summer. Our researchers and educators have been enthusiastic about moving these events online. They are creating videos and presentations and will share them through a live and recorded webinar starting in mid-July through September. We look forward to inviting all of you once we have the dates and times confirmed.

Some of our efforts have be refocused due to COVID-19 we have stayed on course in core areas and have continued progress in other high priority projects during the crisis.  Here are a few examples:

  1. The MSU Center for PFAS Research is a new initiative to explore the health and environmental consequences of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
  1. MSU and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources continue to address chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other critical wildlife issues.
  1. We continue important work on food safety and a group led by MSU just received a $10-million project from U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to investigate pathogens in low-moisture foods like flour, cereals, dried fruit and nuts. The researchers will work with a stakeholder advisory board which includes representatives from farmer-owned cooperatives, commodity groups, food processing companies, equipment companies and food retailers.
  1. Water quality continues to be a high priority and The Institute of Water Research (IWR)  recently received a $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help reduce agricultural field runoff and improve water quality in the Saginaw River watershed.
  2. Researchers at Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Columbia University have developed The Tick App - a mobile application that provides proven options for preventing tick bites – all at your fingertips.

And finally, I’ll say that I’m impressed to see our researchers continuing to secure substantial grants/projects during these challenging times. It speaks to the importance of this work and its impact on Michigan and beyond. Keeping our food system open and abundant and safe is perhaps more important than ever. OUR MISSION REMAINS UNCHANGED.

We will continue to work in close partnerships and collaborations with state and federal and agencies; Michigan commodity organizations and stakeholders; MSU Extension; collaborators around the world.  None of this is possible without your exceptional legislative support. And for that, we are extremely grateful.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and I’m happy to take any questions.

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