It is unfortunate that when Utah legislators meet Friday to discuss funding fusion research at the University of Utah they will not discuss funding biotechnology at Utah State University.
Biotechnology could have as much or an even greater impact on Utah - as well as on the world - as fusion, but alas, fusion has the big press and the scientific romance that biotechnology seems to lack.Legislators will discuss giving the U. $5 million. What USU biologists and agricultural scientists could do with even $1 million!
Since 1987, the state has helped biotechnology at USU with about $600,000, and another $150,000 is earmarked for the 1989-1990 fiscal year that starts in July, but most of the money the university has been given to conduct research into biotechnology has come from private companies and the federal government.
A new three-story biotechnology building under construction at USU will be completed by Christmas, but there are no funds available to even furnish the 44,000-square-foot structure, and the third floor will be completely empty.
USU scientists say they are looking for $275,000 to buy desks, chairs, office equipment and laboratory equipment and supplies. "We don't have a single chair for the building yet," one scientist said in dismay.
Another USU scientist, who was disgruntled because so little attention is being paid to biotechnology at his university, said, "A few stories in the newspapers and on TV said the U. is going to get $5 million - because of one experiment.
"We've been doing great things in biotech at USU for years, and we have to scrape for every penny we get."
He and many other USU scientists and educators are upset because, they say, they are being given so little recognition.
Dr. Steven D. Aust, who directs USU's biotechnology research, said he is caught in a serious budget squeeze all of the time.
"It is discouraging when so few appreciate what we are doing here. Too many legislators and government officials, including the governor, think we can do miracles at USU without money. They are wrong.
"There is every chance that Utah will fall behind in biological research and other states and countries will push to the lead."
Money spent on biotechnology at USU also helps the growing number of companies in Utah that are involved in biotechnology and, similarly, USU's money woes hurt biotechnology in the whole state.
All the talk and fear of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and growth stimulants could be silenced if the dreams of USU's scientists come true.
They want to use biology to man's advantage and adapt the processes of biology to benefit humans, animals and plants. For example, USU scientists are about ready to patent an organism, the white rock fungus, that will eat up environmental pollutants.
Unfortunately, they are not far enough along in their research to ship a carload of the fungus to Alaska where it would eat up the oil spill there.
If that were to happen, of course, fusion would take a back seat and the whole world would stay up nights talking about USU's white rock fungus.
Just a few of the studies being conducted at USU concern planting cells instead of seeds to grow things, developing new antibodies against diseases and developing plants that need much less water and that grow well in salty soils.
Aust and others at USU dream about producing animals and plants through genetic research that grow faster, produce more food and are resistant to diseases.
"Certain trees exist where nothing will grow around them. We want to find out what these trees have, what chemicals they may produce naturally, that won't let weeds grow - a natural herbicide," Aust said.
Worried about chemical fertilizers? Aust and others at USU are working on the development of plants, such as alfalfa and other legumes, that generate their own nitrogen - their own fertilizer.
There seems to be no question that new advances in food and fiber production are coming. The question is: Will USU and the state continue to be leaders in biotechnology?
The answer depends in great measure on whether Utah's Legislature and its governmental leaders will fund biotechnology as it deserves.
How about $2.5 million for fusion and $2.5 million for biotechnology?