Finding money to study urban pests is the biggest challenge facing university researchers. This has huge consequences for the industry, including your own ability to solve future pest problems.
Let’s make one point clear: University researchers who study urban pests are not rolling in cash.
Most, in fact, cobble together funds to keep their research programs alive, a scary thought considering these programs are the backbone of pest management.
Even pests making headlines receive little funding support. “People think there must be tons of money to work on bed bugs, but actually, no,” admitted Ed Vargo, Texas A&M University. To say money is flowing into research for these and other urban pests “couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said.
Basic vs. Applied Research.
Urban entomologists conduct two types of research. Basic research investigates how and why an insect does what it does. It might explore the insect’s biological systems, genetics or behavior. “If you want to manipulate a system, you’ve got to know how it works,” explained Dan Suiter, University of Georgia-Griffin. But it may take years for this knowledge to turn into practical, in-field applications, if ever.
Applied research addresses today’s problems, focusing on issues like product efficacy and how best to prevent and control specific pests.
Both are essential. The basic research of Nan-Yao Su at the University of Florida on termite foraging and dispersal led to applied research resulting in termite bait products; the work of Changlu Wang, Rutgers University, on the foraging movements of bed bugs inspired the development of bed bug monitors, said Mike Potter, University of Kentucky. The work of University of Kentucky researchers on the basic mechanisms of bed bug resistance has resulted in a resistance monitoring kit — the first of its kind in all of entomology, he said.
Falling through the Cracks.
So where do researchers get funding? “Wherever we can,” said Phil Koehler, University of Florida. “We’re not proud.”
The bulk of funds are from chemical manufacturers for applied research, but industry consolidation means fewer companies exist to fund projects. And some manufacturers are shifting research to independent laboratories and consultants.
While greatly appreciated, manufacturer support can be constraining: Money tied to a specific project or product leaves little room for exploring more basic questions. When researchers only are funded by manufacturers, “we really do lose the value of fundamental work,” said Potter. The “secrecy component” of this work may mean findings can’t be discussed publicly to advance the entire industry, added Dr. Michael Scharf, Purdue University.
Other sources of funding are state associations, the National Pest Management Association, state health departments, endowments and industry benefactors, including pest management companies and individuals. In California, a tax on pesticide use stamps bankrolls the Structural Pest Control Research Fund. It’s a “pleasant addition” but takes years to grow to a sufficient level for an RFP, said Mike Rust, University of California-Riverside.
Some states fund competitive grants with industry fines. With few exceptions these sources provide limited dollars, and research is expensive: Just buying blood to sustain bed bug colonies at the University of Kentucky costs $10,000 a year, said Potter.
The big money, sometimes millions of dollars, is for basic research and comes from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as private foundations.
These grant programs are hugely competitive, drawing scientists from every discipline including medicine. The proposals of urban entomologists rarely make the cut because their work is too applied; they ultimately want to control the insect, not just understand it for the sake of science. “There are very few urban entomologists who are competitive in those areas,” said Suiter. Among them: Coby Schal of North Carolina State University, Vargo and Scharf who study fundamental issues like insect bio-chemistry, DNA and RNA interference.
Can Bed Bugs Give Humans Chagas Disease? A New Study Says it is Possible
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru have shown bed bugs can transmit Chagas disease.
The study, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in November, demonstrated the two-way transmission of Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, between mice and bed bugs in the laboratory.
Experiments found that bed bugs feeding on infected mice acquired the parasite, and that infected bed bugs passed the parasite on to uninfected mice through feeding. Mice also were infected when the feces of infected bed bugs were placed on skin inflamed by bed bug bites or scraped with a needle.
Bloodsucking triatomine or “kissing” bugs — distant relatives of bed bugs — are traditional vectors of Chagas disease. They infect people through their feces, which they deposit on a sleeping host’s face after feeding. Like kissing bugs, bed bugs defecate when they feed.
“Our work shows for the first time that bed bugs can transmit the parasite when their feces are in contact with broken skin, the route by which humans are usually infected,” said Ricardo Castillo-Neyra, DVM, Ph.D., coauthor and postdoctoral fellow at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and the University of Pennsylvania.
Urban pests often don’t meet the requirements of NIH grants, which support research for disease-carrying vectors. While bed bugs are a huge problem, they don’t transmit human disease. NIH has yet to fund a single project on bed bugs despite submissions from several universities, said researchers. However, it will fund malaria and dengue fever studies when only a handful of people in the country have ever contracted these diseases, said Potter. (A University of Pennsylvania study released in November may change this dynamic: Scientists demonstrated that bed bugs may be a potential vector of Chagas disease.)
Neither do urban pests cause crop or livestock damage, the main focus of research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This wasn’t always the case: Vargo received “20 years of continuous funding” from a USDA program for fundamental studies on fire ants, termites, bed bugs and cockroaches. About five years ago, the agency stopped funding work on social insects except for pollinators, said Scharf, who had termite studies funded by the program.
USDA still supports some urban entomology projects but proposals “just don’t compete” when stacked up against all the proposals from agriculture, said Scharf.
A quick review of 100 scientific paper citations for the brown marmorated stink bug and bed bug shows the disparity in funding, said Stephen Kells, University of Minnesota. For stink bugs, an agricultural pest, 57 percent of studies were basic research funded by the USDA and similar agencies in Canada and Japan, while 35 percent of bed bug studies were basic research funded mostly by industry and university endowments.
Researchers get some money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, especially as medical issues related to cockroaches and bed bugs have come to light. Scharf won a HUD grant in November to study cockroach resistance evolution. Field research will evaluate insecticide rotations and mixtures to reduce resistance; lab work will explore how and why the cockroaches are resistant.
Overall, though, basic urban entomology research tends to “fall through the cracks,” said Potter. This makes him angry, especially when millions of federal dollars are spent studying “esoteric stuff” like the sex of water strider insects. If taxpayers knew how their money was being spent on scientific research “there’d probably be a revolt,” he said. Unlike basic research in urban entomology, those studies are “very unlikely to have a practical, mission-oriented societal benefit,” said Potter.
Without consistent funding, fundamental research falls behind…and so does the industry. Bed bugs are a good example, said Kells. Had research been ongoing, the pest management industry could have continued to develop a cohesive body of knowledge — which dried up in the 1970s — and acted quicker to develop control methods, he noted.
Some researchers patch together basic and applied studies. Kells combines his work on the behavioral ecology of bed bugs with manufacturer-funded studies. At Purdue, researchers “build in a little cushion” so industry funding helps support the overall program not just that company’s product development, said Gary Bennett, Purdue University. The extra dollars support graduate students and their research, he explained.
Impact on the pipeline.
Graduate students are expensive, costing $30,000 to $75,000 per student each year. Depending on the university, costs may include a stipend, tuition, insurance, travel and research expenses. “The university doesn’t just hand us that money,” said Bennett. It’s up to the researchers to secure these funds from outside sources, and for multiple years: two for a master’s degree student and four for a Ph.D. student. At the University of Kentucky, that’s $80,000 and $160,000, respectively, said Haynes. Scharf’s HUD grant will support a grad student and a postdoctoral scholar for three years.
When researchers are unsuccessful securing funds, programs dwindle. “Frankly, we don’t know how we’re going to keep our bed bug program going,” said Potter. The program has exhausted a $200,000 gift from the Rollins family to fund two grad students doing “pivotal” research on insecticide resistance, he said. “Until we can get some funding, we can’t hire any more graduate students.”
The industry needs students in the system now to solve problems five to 10 years out. As programs contract, will there be people to replace the Gary Bennetts and Phil Koehlers of the industry? “I’m not so certain,” said a semi-retired Rust.
Some departments host continuing education workshops, seminars and webinars to help fund grad students. Most rely on support from manufacturers, either through research grants or gifts. Ecolab supports a Ph.D. student (and employee) in Kells’ program at the University of Minnesota.
The University Squeeze.
Universities once provided support for graduate students and faculty research, but that has diminished along with state funding. Competition among faculty is fierce for what’s left. Rust likened it to a “hog trough,” where everybody is in there “fighting for dwindling resources.”
Researchers at Texas A&M need to bring in $600,000 a year from all funding sources to keep urban entomology scientists, graduate students and staff in salary and benefits, said Roger Gold, who retired from Texas A&M in December.
Some non-tenured researchers at other universities must find grants to cover their own paychecks, in addition to funds for lab supplies, grad students and staff.
Universities are pushing faculty to chase big federal grants. They get a percentage of that money to cover indirect research costs like cleaning services, electricity and use of the building and library. At the University of Kentucky, this adds 40 percent to a grant request, said Haynes. At some private institutions, overhead can add 100 percent to the cost of a study, he said.
Unfortunately, “those kind of big dollars are not for how to kill a cockroach,” said Potter. So, universities are hiring scientists who can secure the big money. This shift away from applied-research-focused extension specialists to basic science researchers who specialize in molecular science could leave the industry without practical support.
“Universities are losing more of their applied faculty and research because of where the big granting agencies are putting their money,” said Bennett. At Purdue, “we’ve been lucky to maintain a balance in our faculty, but I can’t say that’s the case for the future.”
“The days of urban entomologists that dedicate their careers to helping the pest control industry are numbered,” said Potter, who has a full extension appointment. Increasingly, urban entomologists have split extension/research duties, he said.
“The pressure in academia is definitely to move away from industry service,” said Scharf. Between managing research programs, teaching students and maneuvering university politics, it’s difficult to serve our clientele groups, he admitted.
“Investigators will follow the source of the funding,” added Haynes. If no money is available for urban entomology, they’ll move to another area or switch from applied to basic research, he said.
Industry endowments give researchers some freedom and job security, but clever administrators can find loopholes. (Bennett knows of one organization that was not happy with how a university used its endowed funds.)
Universities are cutting programs that produce fewer graduates and are redirecting funds to hot-topic ones. At Purdue, a bachelor’s degree program in urban industrial pest management was eliminated, said Scharf. The urban entomology program graduates about 20 undergrad and graduate students a year; its engineering program graduates more than 2,000, he noted.
Where Government Places its Research Bets
According to the latest report (http://1.usa.gov/YDTbrR) from the National Science Foundation (NSF), federal funding for all basic research performed at universities and colleges decreased 0.3 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2012. Funding for basic research in the agricultural sciences, which includes urban entomology, declined more than 39 percent to $73.4 million. While funds for overall research and development were expected to decline in fiscal year 2013, federal obligations for basic research should increase slightly.
“Sequestration hit all of the agencies hard in fiscal year 2013 and knocked R&D funding down across the board,” said Michael Yamaner of the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. R&D funding was estimated to recover somewhat in fiscal year 2014 but lower than projected in earlier surveys, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded 92 percent of research in the agricultural sciences in fiscal year 2012, said Yamaner. The agency has two programs that provide funds to advance Integrated Pest Management of pests like mosquitoes, ticks, bed bugs and termites, said Herbert Bolton, USDA.
Hatch funds support the work of state agricultural experiment stations at land grant universities. (Extension programs are the educational arm of these stations.) A number of universities are using Hatch funds to conduct research on urban entomology topics, said Bolton. Universities determine which projects get funded based on priorities in that state, he said.
The competitive Crop Protection and Pest Management Program (CPPM), which began in fiscal year 2014 and previously was known by other names, awards money to address high-priority pest issues to increase food security and protect human health. In fiscal year 2014, the CPPM program funded some urban entomology projects, said Bolton.
The percentage of urban pest studies that get funded by USDA, NSF and the National Institutes of Health has decreased over the years, said Ken Haynes, University of Kentucky. Urban entomologists cited percentages well below 10 percent. Haynes said less money is available to go around because research is more expensive and more individuals are applying for it. In addition, the budgets for federal grant programs have remained flat compared to the cost of doing research.
According to the NSF, the foundation receives 40,000 proposals each year for research, education and training projects, of which about 11,000 are funded. In addition, the foundation receives several thousand applications for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships.
In fiscal year 2012, universities and colleges received more than half of the federal government’s $31 billion obligation for basic research and more than 11 percent of total research and development obligations, according to the NSF report. Five federal departments and agencies provided $15.4 billion (98.3 percent) in basic research funding to universities and colleges:
- Department of Health and Human Services – $9.2 billion (58.6 percent)
- NSF – $3.8 billion (24.0 percent)
- Department of Defense – $1.2 billion (7.6 percent)
- Department of Energy – $0.7 billion (4.5 percent)
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – $0.6 billion (3.7 percent)
Advocate for Funding.
Without funding for basic research, “we’d lose our future,” said Koehler. Without funding for applied research and extension specialists, the industry will be left without daily problem-solving support.
PMPs have a voice in this discussion. Talk to state legislators and the heads of agricultural colleges and tell them how important urban entomology programs are to the industry and society in general, said Suiter. “Deans and department heads will listen,” he said. Scharf agreed: They’re “very receptive to what the stakeholders have to say” and to grass-roots efforts.
This is true especially when they’re reminded that 90 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban centers and 85 percent of people in urban environments recognize issues with insects, said Gold. The agricultural industry is adept at communicating the economic losses and health consequences of insect pests; the urban pest management industry needs to do the same, said Kells. And while land-grant universities were founded to help farmers, “the research and extension mission of the university is as much for (PMPs) as it is for agriculture,” reminded Rust.
Researchers would like to see state and national organizations get more proactive in lobbying federal agencies to fund urban pest research. Potter wants NPMA to increase its funding commitment. The trade group currently provides $30,000 split between three universities, he said. “It’s great, but it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Potter. “Honestly, what NPMA needs to do is give $1 million; that’s the kind of money that’s necessary to support three or four different universities with substantive programs” for two to three years, he said.
Thank manufacturers, urged Gold. “Without their support a lot of (research) would never be done,” he said.
Consider how researchers might help the industry with consistent, big-dollar funding. “I could do a lot more,” assured Kells.
Editor’s note: See related article below.
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NPMA Pest Management Foundation Announces Norman Goldenberg Research Fund
More than $500,000 already pledged to support pest management industry research.
In its continuing efforts to provide financial support for industry research and pay homage to Norman Goldenberg’s enduring industry legacy, the National Pest Management Association’s (NPMA) Pest Management Foundation announced the creation of the Norman Goldenberg Research Fund last summer. Members of the steering committee, which first met at NPMA’s 2014 Legislative Day, have pledged more than $500,000 in contributions; already the industry’s most successful research initiative (a list of pre-launch pledges is below).
Created in recognition of former NPMA President Norman Goldenberg’s 53 years of service to the pest management industry, during which he worked tirelessly to promote the best interests of pest professionals, the fund will allow the Foundation to support research that will propel the industry’s advancement in the 21st century. “I can’t think of a more fitting way to recognize and honor Norman’s half-century of contributions to the industry than the creation of a research fund that will provide leadership for the next half century,” said NPMA CEO Bob Rosenberg.
“I am moved and honored by this outpouring of support and generosity and am proud to be associated with the pest management industry,” stated Goldenberg, expressing his gratitude to the industry, association and generous contributors.
The Norman Goldenberg Research Fund will be administered as the primary research grant fund within the Pest Management Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the National Pest Management Association. To contribute, visit http://npmapestworld.org/support/foundation.cfm.