Michigan State University animal science professors James Ireland, George Smith and Jose Cibelli and five colleagues from other institutions warned in a recent issue of Science that the continuing decline in federal funding for animal and biomedical research jeopardises work in their field.
The researchers noted that, though the economic value of livestock and poultry in the US exceeds $US132 billion, only 0.04 percent ($US32.15 million) of the US Department of Agriculture's budget was allocated to its competitive grants programmes for research involving farm animals.
In comparison, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for human health research is nearly $US30 billion.
Bridging the vast disparity between the total budgets available for research grants focused in animal agriculture and human health (about 900 per cent more) is the focus of several papers written by the Michigan State University professors.
They warn that a continuing decline in animal agriculture research funding jeopardises the entire field of animal science, right down to the producer level.
"Without basic research, we do not have the foundations for the applied research that can benefit livestock producers," Ireland says.
"The lack of research funding affects all areas of study, including graduate students, farm operations and animal science faculty at nearly every land-grant university."
The decrease in federal funding for basic research is taking its toll on the university's Department of Animal Science. The number of graduate students in the department fell from more than 100 in the 1980s to 74 in 1992 to 30 in 2008.
The university is not alone. The trend in declining graduate programme enrollment is being seen at universities all across the US. In June 2008, Ireland and his colleagues reported that the number of doctoral degrees awarded in animal science declined 30 per cent from 1985 to 2004.
To help reverse this trend, the Michigan researchers are working to influence others to take a closer look at the benefits of using domestic animals, instead of mice, as research models. Currently 98 per cent of biomedical research is conducted using mice.
"There are numerous examples in the biomedical field that point to the fact that domestic farm animals make better research models," Ireland says. "For example, chickens contract ovarian cancer as humans do, pigs develop chronic diseases such as obesity, ulcers and heart disease, and cows make excellent models for reproduction studies."
The Michigan professors point to the fact that 17 Nobel laureates used farm animals as research models. The evolution of genome sequencing, including the landmark bovine genome sequence released in April, promises new insights into gene function and genetic and environmental influences on animal production and human disease.
Ireland says that maximising domestic animals as dual-purpose models to solve problems common to both animal agriculture and biomedicine will require changes on both sides. He argues that the National Institutes of Health panels reviewing grant applications planning to use farm animals need to include individuals with the necessary expertise in that area.
Conversely, he challenges the colleges of agriculture and veterinary medicine to work more closely with researchers in the broader life sciences community and to pursue more NIH funding.
"The 'protected island fortress' of agriculture, usually located on the 'other side' of campus, is an anachronism that is no longer viable as state and federal support for research with large animal models declines," Ireland says.