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Durbin Calls For More Research Funding After Touring U Of I Crop Science Project

Sen. Dick Durbin tours the RIPE crop science research lab at the University of Illinois.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) tours a "growth lab", part of the University of Illinois' RIPE Project, dedicated to raising plants with improved photosynthesis. At left is RIPE Deputy Director Don Ort. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

A tour of a crop science research project at the University of Illinois elicited Senator Dick Durbin’s hope of seeing federal funding for scientific research increase by five percent each year, starting with the next budget.

Durbin visited the RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) Project Wednesday at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U of I’s Urbana campus. There, the Illinois Democrat toured a “growth lab” housing plants that have been altered through the introduction of foreign genes and synthetic pathways that allow them to process more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

The goal, says RIPE Deputy Director Don Ort, is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in staple crops.

“In the past Green Revolution, where productivity on in the planet doubled, that was driven by traits that are now maximized,” said Ort. “And one of the things that was not improved during the Green Revolution was photosynthesis.”

Ort says photosynthesis is such a basic process in plants that researchers during agriculture’s Green Revolution of the 1950’s and ‘60’s could not improve on it through breeding, because there was little difference in how different plant varieties performed.

But Ort says that today, they believe that new techniques in synthetic biology will allow RIPE to raise plants with improved photosynthesis.

“It’s a bigger plant,” said Ort of the plants that the RIPE Project’s initial research has produced. “And our belief is that bigger plant is going to proportionately translate into bigger yield.”

The University of Illinois is the lead partner in the RIPE Project, which also includes five other universities in the US, Britain and Australia, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. RIPE was launched with a five-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Now in its second five-year phase, the project has picked up additional funding from the British government’s Department for International Development, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which is funded through the U.S. Farm Bill.

It was the US government funding through FFAR that interested Sen. Durbin, especially the idea that an increased investment in research could yield an even bigger gains in scientific progress. The senator said the U of I has a compelling story to tell members of Congress who make decisions on research funding.

“What they’re finding here is that by doing some modifications in the seed that is planted, it takes less time to grow as much as you did in previous years,” said Durbin. “And that means a shorter growing season, and more productivity. That means more food available, and more cost-efficient production. That is a winner all around.”

Durbin, who joined the Senate Agriculture Committee this year, said five percent growth in government research funding has been the case in some areas, but it ought to be the standard in all fields, including agriculture.

“There’s no better investment of tax dollars than research,” said Durbin. “Not only finding cures for diseases, but expanding economic opportunities and breakthroughs in science like the ones we’re looking at today at the University of Illinois.”

Durbin’s wish for more federal funding for research comes at a time when the Trump administration has been proposing cuts to science funding for the third year in a row. For instance, the White House Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal would cut an estimated 12% from the allocation for the National Science Foundation.

Congress has rebuffed the Trump administration’s proposed cuts in the last two budget years. At a roundtable discussion with farmers and researchers that was part of his U of I visit, Durbin said he expects congressional support for science funding to continue. And although the House and Senate are now controlled by opposing parties, Durbin said he believes the lawmakers chairing appropriations committees (New York Democrat Nita Lowey in the House and Alabama Republican Richard Shelby in the Senate) are capable of finding common ground on the importance of funding important research.