Forging new partnerships

MSU AgBioResearch associate director George Smith talks about the future of the organization and its research priorities.

George Smith

This past July marked the start of my fifth year as associate director of MSU AgBioResearch. Boy, how time flies. As I reflect on the past four years, I am grateful for and impressed by many things. First, the ongoing partnerships that MSU AgBioResearch – with a cadre of more than 350 talented faculty, including the ones featured in this magazine – has forged and its vast discoveries in the areas of food, energy and the environment.

Our scientists continue to be at the forefront of advancements linked to the growth and sustainability of the food and agriculture economy, management of the abundant natural resources that make Michigan truly special, and ultimately, solutions to the grand challenges of the next decades and beyond.

I am also truly grateful for the opportunities to work closely with stakeholders in the animal agriculture industry. These partnerships have been instrumental in the creation of the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture, or M-AAA.

Formed in 2014, M-AAA is a partnership between MSU and the animal agriculture industries in Michigan that has catalyzed an enhanced spirit of cooperation and integration. The cornerstone of M-AAA is a competitive grant program now entering its fifth year of funding applied research, Extension projects and seed grants focused on the most pressing issues facing the industry.

Initially supported exclusively by MSU AgBioResearch and MSU Extension, M-AAA has awarded more than $8.4 million in grant funding since its inception. And the efforts of our industry partners have helped secure nearly $5.4 million in funding support from the State of Michigan for this program over the past three years.

While funding for M-AAA grants has been appropriated each year on a onetime basis, I am hopeful that efforts to secure recurring state funding will ultimately succeed. While excited for the future, I realize we live in a time when funding for scientific research is highly competitive and will likely only become more so.

MSU scientists compete exceptionally well for funding from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive grants program (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institutes of Food and Agriculture).

In fact, we ranked third in the U.S. in terms of competitive grant funding from USDA NIFA for fiscal year 2017 (based on funding awarded within Michigan’s eight congressional districts). However, we will not meet our mission relying solely on these types of funding.

We must continue to explore funding opportunities from nontraditional agricultural agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, to promote the relevance of our work beyond traditional audiences.

The amount of funding available for competitive grants from NIFA/AFRI was $400 million for fiscal year 2018. This equates to less than 3 percent of the total competitive grants budget for NIH for the same period.

As an administrator, I have a responsibility to advocate for alternative funding opportunities and promote the relevance of our research portfolio beyond traditional boundaries. Growth of our research portfolio funded by the NIH is critical to increasing the impact of a significant portion of the fundamental research efforts supported by MSU AgBioResearch.

I have also been privileged to play a role in the grassroots effort led by MSU AgBioResearch scientist Jim Ireland to raise awareness of common research problems and opportunities relevant to the fundamental research mission of both NIH and USDA.

This has resulted in a novel interagency program between the NIH and USDA titled “Dual Purpose With Dual Benefit: Research in Biomedicine and Agriculture Using Agriculturally Important Domestic Species.”

This 15-year advocacy effort strives to articulate the utility of farm animals as models for biomedical research and the potential utility to the mission of both USDA and NIH. This effort has included a series of workshops, development of a white paper, publication of a policy paper in Science magazine and meetings with administrators from the two agencies.

In 2010, a grants program was launched seeking research proposals using farm animals that would have direct relevance to both animal agriculture and human health. This nontraditional source of funding for research, demonstrated to be relevant to the mission of both agencies, was renewed twice beyond its initial three-year authorization.

To date, the program has awarded 42 grants to scientists in 17 states, including three to MSU investigators. While the future of the program, which is scheduled to end in 2019, remains uncertain, advocacy efforts to ensure its continuation are ongoing.

These are just a few examples of the work I’ve been proud to be a part of these past four years. I look forward to the future of MSU AgBioResearch and all of the opportunities that lie ahead.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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