Not all industry money is funneled toward basic research or the development of new products. And most of it does not come in the form of multi-million-dollar grants.
More often, the funding comes in small chunks sometimes referred to as service or task orders. This differs from research because the sponsor provides specific protocols that the grantee follows.
Lee Miller, an MU Plant Sciences professor whose research area is turfgrass, described it this way: “If they’re coming out with a new pesticide or new biological control or something . . . that’s going to hit the market, then we will evaluate it and make sure that it works.”
Miller usually focuses on products that can control turfgrass diseases. He’ll test a product’s effectiveness, though he doesn’t study things like toxicity.
Miller said his own findings are nearly always published through the American Phytopathological Society.
Some of Miller’s service work is done on behalf of the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, a nonprofit that partners with the USDA. Indeed, service work is not exclusively done for private entities. But that's an exception for Plant Sciences reseachers.
Most of the department’s service orders are funded by industry, according to data analysis conducted by the Missourian. In a 10-year period, MU’s plant scientists conducted well over 200 for companies including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and Koch Agronomic Services. Several of Miller’s service orders were sponsored by Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science and BASF.
The company will provide funding for the entire project, Miller said. The payments range from $1,000 to over $500,000, though most projects net less than $50,000, according to the Missourian’s data analysis.
Kevin Bradley, a Plant Sciences professor who works in both research and extension, was the single biggest recipient of service orders: 63 from fiscal years 2009 to 2018 that total over $1 million.
Bradley turned down requests for an interview about his work.
For several years, Bradley has been in the eye of a public storm over one of his sponsor’s weed control products.
The rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds drove Monsanto to develop crops that tolerated a different weed-killer: dicamba. The herbicide, first approved in 1967 for use in the U.S., is notoriously volatile and can easily vaporize and drift onto other fields.
As early as 2005, Monsanto began taking major steps toward developing dicamba-tolerant crops, which would allow farmers to apply the herbicide over the top of crops later in the growing season.
Monsanto released new dicamba-tolerant cotton in 2015 and soybeans in 2016. At the time, though, the EPA hadn’t approved a version of herbicide that could legally be used on the crops. Some farmers who planted the new seeds are suspected to have sprayed unapproved forms of the pesticide — with predictable results. Reports of dicamba drifting onto neighboring fields and destroying those crops soared.
The EPA eventually approved a new formulation of the herbicide that was supposed to be less volatile in time for the 2017 growing season. But the damage didn’t stop. Part of Bradley’s work with Extension has involved tracking off-target dicamba-drift, which affected millions of acres of farmland in 2017.
Bradley was featured in a 2017 Reuters report that described how Monsanto had provided samples of its new dicamba product, but prevented scientists from studying volatility.
Such public-facing efforts have put him at odds with the company. In 2017, Bradley told NPR that Monsanto executives had repeatedly called his supervisors.
“What the exact nature of those calls [was], I’m not real sure,” Bradley said, according to NPR. “But I’m pretty sure it has something to do with not being happy with what I’m saying.”
It’s not always clear what the service orders taken by researchers such as Bradley are for. The data examined by the Missourian often includes only very general descriptions, such as “Monsanto Service Order 57.” The orders are classified by UM System policy as “other sponsored activity.”
To better understand what service orders are and how professors communicate with sponsors, the Missourian submitted a request under the Missouri Sunshine Law in January, asking MU for copies of research agreements, reports to sponsors and other documents related to a handful of recent service orders, including Bradley’s.
In August, MU released a master research agreement with Monsanto laying out general terms that govern multiple service orders. However, the university did not release reports or specific research protocols, citing Missouri state laws that allow for the withholding of records that relate to proprietary scientific or technological innovations, and prohibit the release of trade secrets.
Brendan Crowley contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, email@example.com.