Agricultural research in the United States enjoys a long, rich history. While the need for such applied research was identified by President George Washington in the late 18th century, it wasn’t until nearly 80 years later that states first began to gather resources and fund their own agricultural research efforts. By the time of the 1887 Hatch Act, 14 states – including Louisiana – had already established agricultural experiment stations. The Hatch Act was instrumental to provide federal funding for such stations, thereby creating an effective system to serve agricultural needs nationwide. These investment “seeds” have yielded abundant harvests of agricultural development and technologies, which in turn have enabled the United States to become not only a world leader in food production but also a model for integration of agriculture into the successful development of a nation.
The Hatch Act stipulated that federal funds be used to “promote scientific investigation and experimentation bearing directly on and contributing to the establishment of a permanent and effective agricultural industry.” So the concept of economic development in agriculture was fundamental to the mission of the agricultural experiment stations. For nearly a century, research developments and technologies developed at these facilities were made available freely to agricultural stakeholders as part of the public domain.
All that changed in 1980 with passage of the Patent and Trademarks Law Amendments Act, commonly referenced as the Bayh-Dole Act. This legislation addressed ownership of intellectual property such as discoveries, inventions, devices, creative works and processes that arose from research funded by the federal government. The Bayh-Dole Act permits a university, small business or nonprofit institution to pursue ownership of any intellectual property that it develops. This act greatly expanded a university’s ability to develop, license, commercialize and collect royalty payments from its discoveries.
Many universities have long been involved in developing technologies for medical, military, communications and computer applications. One needs look no further than Stanford University and its foundational role in what became known as Silicon Valley to understand the potential of university scientists to drive economic development. But while medical and engineering research programs were becoming well-engaged with industries, agricultural research programs largely retained their focus on free release and distribution of their discoveries and technologies. The Bayh-Dole Act was instrumental to open agriculture’s eyes to the economic value of their research.
In the past three decades, commercialization of agricultural discoveries by university researchers has increased dramatically. And the LSU AgCenter, through efforts of Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station scientists, is the leader in Louisiana and ranks among the nation’s top universities in this area. As you will read in this magazine, the AgCenter has been successful – a rainmaker, if you will – in generating patents, licenses, startup companies and royalty income from its inventions. From rice and sweet potato varieties to bio-based pharmaceutical companies and from food science and beverage products to drilling mud additives, our scientists continually strive to develop better solutions to the problems associated with feeding, clothing and housing a growing world population. While no one is certain where the next agricultural technology breakthrough will occur, AgCenter scientists almost assuredly will be at the vanguard.
(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)