Life is full of problems, and modern societies turn to science for their solutions. We depend on scientific understanding to support better solutions to large problems like malnutrition and global warming, as well as to small ones like the newest iPhone or even just a better laundry detergent. The need to use science effectively to solve problems is especially pressing in issues surrounding food. In the past, we would look to traditional methods of salting and drying to preserve our food; now scientific study has led to controlled atmospheres and other innovative technologies to widen our options. We continue to look to science to solve the problems—both large and small—we face today in our food system. Science may not be capable of resolving all of society’s problems, but its potential is vast, and the possibilities it presents can be amazing.
These amazing possibilities are only feasible when we invest in them. For example, companies invest in food science research to benefit their businesses by creating new products or improving existing ones. The food scientists that do this research are valued by their employers (See our latest salary survey!) for their technical skills and creativity. IFT offers programs to help scientists develop these skills throughout their careers. The Higher Education Review Board approves undergraduate programs so students can identify the best educational opportunities, and after graduation, further professional development is available through IFT short courses, webinars, section and division activities, and through CFS certification.
The other major source of research funding is from government, which invests public funds to meet the current identified priorities of the country. For food-related research, these priorities can include economic development, improving the environment, and addressing public health issues—notably reducing the burden of diet-related disease and controlling food safety issues. Food scientists and technologists competing for these funds depend on the same creativity and technical excellence as their peers in industry, but also depend on a political consensus that good food science can benefit the public and deserves public funds. For many years, IFT has engaged in explaining the power of food science to policy makers and legislators, and currently IFT Past President Colin Dennis is chairing a task force to consider ways we can be even more effective.
Securing better public funding for food science research should be important for members working in industry as well as for academics. Aside from benefiting from the research itself, much of this funding is used to support the training of graduate students who often move into leadership roles in industry after graduation. In an editorial in the November 2015 issue of Journal of Food Science, Editor-in-Chief Allen Foegeding points out how thinly spread the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture funding is: “[w]ith the number of Food Science programs in the United States at 50, a funding rate of 22 projects per cycle is less than one per Food Science program.” Securing federal funding is often a key element for a new professor to gain tenure, and if support doesn’t improve, academics will shift to work less related to food processing, and industry will lose an important pipeline for talent.
Very often public funds and private funds are combined to meet a common need. This might be a complex project involving multiple companies, state and local government, and a university working together to develop a food processing economy in a deprived region, or a simple project such as a company sponsoring work at a publicly funded university. Legislators find public-private partnerships attractive as they allow them to do more with a limited tax base, companies benefit from them as they gain additional resources to meet their own needs, and researchers like them because they get to do more research. Public-private partnerships are particularly useful in the modern food system as adoption of technologies by companies is often the only way they can have practical impact.
There are, however, important ethical concerns if the lure of private funds causes public money to be spent in ways it otherwise wouldn’t be, or if citizens are concerned that the results of the research favor the interests of the commercial sponsor. Setting clear ethical standards for public-private partnerships helps, and IFT has joined several other organizations to develop a framework that offers guidance to members considering these kinds of projects.
Not all food science professionals are personally involved in research, but all can benefit from it in their businesses and in their communities. We see the results of research in the science of food at the IFT annual event each year as well as in our local supermarkets, and we should support the people and funding that allow the best science to happen.