The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $48 million collaboration with the National Science Foundation to fund research on ways to make crops resistant to drought, disease and pests; and improve soil quality and tackle a wide range of problems that limit agricultural productivity in Africa and other poor corners of the world.

Share story

To entice scientists to help farmers in the developing world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is putting up cash — and relinquishing some control.

The Seattle philanthropy on Monday announced a $48 million collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research on ways to make crops resistant to drought, disease and pests; and improve soil quality and tackle a wide range of problems that limit agricultural productivity in Africa and other poor corners of the world.

Each organization will provide $24 million over five years.

In a departure from most Gates-funded initiatives, decisions about who will get grants will be shared between the foundation and the NSF. Applicants will be vetted through NSF’s well-established peer-review process, which relies on independent experts to evaluate the merits of the thousands of research proposals the federal agency receives each year. Staff from NSF and the Gates Foundation will jointly make the final cut.

“This partnership with the NSF is an exciting opportunity to tap into the most innovative, transformative ideas the global scientific community can offer,” said Rob Horsch, deputy director of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural-development initiative. “The idea is to do this differently than we handle a lot of other grants, to get that broad solicitation of novel ideas and the very high level of peer-review scrutiny.”

While NSF funding will be limited to U.S. scientists, the Gates Foundation money will be used to bring in researchers from around the world, particularly developing countries.

The new program is called BREAD, Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development. NSF Program Director Deborah Delmer said it will cast a wide net for new ideas and approaches to common problems like poor soil quality, crops that spoil during storage and plant strains that wilt in today’s heat — and may fare even worse as climate change raises the planet’s temperature.

“We want some new ideas from those great minds out there,” she said.

Research projects might focus on the use of nanotechnology to deliver tiny amounts of fertilizer without causing environmental damage, better approaches to livestock breeding or use of remote sensors to monitor crops.

Research on genetically modified plants or animals could be included in the program.

“Genetic engineering is a tool,” Delmer said. “We’re not going to hold back any kind of science from being considered in these projects.”

Some critics question whether science and technology can solve the problems of famine and poverty among poor farmers.

“People are hungry for one reason only — they are too poor to buy food,” said Philip Bereano, emeritus professor of technology and public policy at the University of Washington. Until the underlying social and economic conditions responsible for poverty are addressed, “the likelihood is that the NSF/Gates program will make some folks here feel good but not feed many folks over there,” said Bereano, who recently helped create the Seattle-based group AGRA Watch, to monitor the Gates Foundation’s agricultural programs.

“Why doesn’t the Gates Foundation offer money to grass-roots African organizations and villagers to fund their own ‘solutions’ rather than expecting that imported ideas, dreamed up by people who have never farmed for a living, will work?” he asked.

The Gates Foundation has committed $1.2 billion to programs to help small farmers, Horsch said.

The BREAD program will put out a call for grant applications in early June. The first grants will be awarded in early 2010.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com