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Sally Rockey

Sally Rockey

Sally Rockey is confident the deadlines agriculture producers face in feeding an ever-growing world population will be met.

In closing the 2016 Water for Food Global Conference Tuesday, the executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research shared an optimistic view that future breakthroughs in agriculture will allow farmers and ranchers to feed 10 billion people by the middle of this century.

But even as science is achieving new breakthroughs, Rockey said the traditional funding sources pushing that research have stalled.

Agriculture has seen the majority of its research and development funding shift from the public to the private sector, while funding in both sectors has moved largely to defense spending.

According to Rockey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture accounts for roughly 2 percent of the entire research and development budget for the federal government, with about 90 percent of that funding being awarded to non-government researchers.

“We need our agriculture and our agriculture research to keep up, to be able to provide that food that is going to be needed in this population we’re going to have worldwide,” Rockey said.

As private sector funding has eclipsed government research spending, Rockey said new opportunities have arisen for researchers through public-private partnerships -- the kind of “Catalytic Collaborations” this year’s Water for Food conference promoted.

Created through a $200 million appropriation included in the 2014 Farm Bill, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research was established as a nonprofit organization that partners with non-federal agencies to fund programs and research tied to optimizing agricultural water use, transforming soil health, developing sustainable animal farm practices and improving food processing and nutrition, among other issues.

To accomplish those goals, the foundation partners with philanthropic groups, universities and other agencies.

Echoing the message presented by Water for Food Board Chairman Jeff Raikes on Monday, Rockey said both the public and private sectors find common ground for research in precompetitive spaces, which she defined as “areas of research where outcomes offer no particular advantage relative to peers and where there is potential to positively impact all parties equally.”

It’s a broad definition, Rockey admitted, and one that doesn’t always have clear lines companies adhere to. But it’s also an area where both the private and public sectors have recognized great opportunities.

Private companies realize it’s an area where they can work toward their “corporate social responsibility,” rapidly develop products, realize cost savings and efficiencies, access research completed at universities across the country, as well as the experts behind the research, while also tapping into researchers capable of bolstering their workforce.

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“There’s where the action is, folks,” Rockey said. “We need to continue to move in that arena, not only because we share goals with the private sector, but it’s also a place where there can be joint funding of research.”

The precompetitive space benefits public agencies, too, Rockey added. It gives them a space to address real-world problems, translate research into solutions adopted by companies into the economy and access privately-held research and data.

“It’s really a win-win situation for both sides,” she said.

In an area that crosses multitudes of disciplines -- agriculture, engineering, computer science, economics, sociology -- public-private partnerships have the capacity to produce large-scale solutions to the world’s most complex problems.

Rockey said the more she learns about the work being done at places like the University of Nebraska, where she was one of four finalists for the presidency in 2014, she is confident those challenges will be met.

“It is just amazing as I travel around the country, seeing the pent-up need for research funds, because the ideas and innovations are absolutely incredible,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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