Catalyst Centre News
- Tue Jul 10 2012
GUELPH — Moo U?
The University of Guelph still has the well-cultivated reputation of former years embedded in its scholastic robes like the rich scent of a barn interior.
But for several years, Maclean’s magazine has rated it among the country’s best in the comprehensive universities category, and a leader in innovation and education quality. Today, it is much more than the agricultural college it began as.
The personnel numbers no longer add up to a research concentration in agriculture – the financial numbers might, but the human numbers not so much. Of the roughly 800 academic staffers at U of G, only about 200 are involved in agriculture and food research, Kevin Hall, the university’s vice president, research, indicated.
About 600 people involved in research on campus and at affiliated facilities and locales, are working outside the university’s foundational areas of agriculture and veterinary medicine, he said.
But the institution comes by its longstanding reputation honestly. Its roots in farming are deep and extensive, and agricultural research remains integral to what the post-secondary institution does in the laboratory and out in the field. But U of G has evolved in a multitude of directions that have little to do with farming or food.
Agricultural investigations attract about one-third of the university’s total research funding – investigations that churn out significant food and agribusiness knowledge and technology on the Guelph campus, and in regional campuses at Ridgetown in southwestern Ontario, and Alfred and Kempville in eastern Ontario.
Of the $141,493,692 in total funding last year, Ontario Agricultural College and its School of Environmental Science generated roughly $58 million of that – funding that has averaged around $52 million over the past eight years. Last year was the highest of those years, while 2004-05 at just over $46 million was the lowest. It is the highest funded of all of the university’s colleges, with the College of Physical and Engineering Science a distant second at $18.4 million.
The vast majority of research in the Ontario Agricultural College is funded through the so-called OMAFRA Agreement, the longstanding funding relationship between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and U of G, the only university in Ontario with an agrifood mandate.
Consistently, the agreement is the largest single source of research funding at the university. It invested $52.3 million last year.
“I think it’s an excellent investment,” said Michael Toombs, OMAFRA director, research and innovation branch, in an interview.
“We have numbers like it’s a 20-to-1 payback on research investment in Ontario,” he added, explaining that for every dollar the province spends on U of G research, $20 in additional activity accrues from it.
OMAFRA funds approximately 70 research projects as well as a series of laboratories and programs every year at U of G through the agreement, and many others outside the agreement.
In the university’s traditional agricultural focus, research is far from traditional. OMAFRA-funded scientists are looking at developing plastics from biological materials, and rubber from Ontario crops of Russian dandelion, and are finding ways to breed asparagus that has more rutin, a powerful antioxidant.
Research into biogas production, rainbow trout farming, macronutrient metabolism in pets, the prevention of food allergies, the production of cancer medication in tobacco plants, the colonization strategies of monarch butterflies, is being carried out.
And there are a host of projects related to genetic engineering going on - also identifiable through terms like transgenic, recombinant, engineered, stacked, genetic gain, genomic innovations, or adventitious presence. Much of that research is publicly funded, often in partnership with private companies or associations like Dairy Farmers of Canada or Ontario Pork.
Multinational seed and herbicide/pesticide companies Syngenta, Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, and DuPont spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on U of G research projects, mostly in the area of crop protection.
Last year, those five companies – dozens of private companies contribute to research at U of G – spent just over $780,000. That total represents just 3.5 per cent of the over $22 million spent on research by business and industry last year.
Syngenta was the highest spender of those five companies at just over $343,000, much of that related to hybrid corn and plant diseases, while Monsanto supported nearly $260,000 in research, related to pest control and herbicide resistance.
The U of G might evoke images of cows and crop rows by default, but particle physics, space travel, heart health, Canadian literature, improvisational music, vaccination efficacy, water quality, and climate change mitigation are among the many areas of research contributing to the university’s national and international reputation.
Moo U was an apt nickname back in the day, but the handle is not even close to defining the university today, according to the overarching perspective of Kevin Hall, vice-president (research), and others.
“The University of Guelph has come from an agricultural background, and that is well known across the country,” said Hall, who has a PhD in engineering, and is himself a leading researcher in the area of water quality, environmental monitoring, and pathogen detection.
“When I came here from Queens, where I was for 22 years,” Hall continued, “a lot of my colleagues said, ‘Why are you going to Moo U?’ And that is the reputation we have – and we have a fantastic reputation in agriculture, veterinary medicine, and food around the world.”
He describes himself as a “cheerleader and dating service” for a research environment that attracts an annual $140-$160 million dollars in research funding. His description of his professional responsibilities has a casual tone, but he oversees a huge, multi-million dollar enterprise that stirs up many millions more in economic activity locally, provincially and abroad.
It is an enterprise that weaves Guelph academics into an intricate web of leading scientists/scholars across Canada and around the globe, and places them on the ground with other experts in the far north, on the continents of Africa and Europe, in China and India, near coastal Brazil and the fruit growing regions of Costa Rica.