WHERE POSSIBILITY MEETS REALITY
BASIC AND APPLIED RESEARCH AT UNIVERSITIES UNLOCKS AG’S POTENTIAL
BY REX NEWKIRK, PhD
Universities play a unique role in agriculture. They not only explore possibilities for the future, but—likely more than any other discipline—they connect possibilities with real solutions and business opportunities that have a long-lasting impact.
We often talk about two types of research: basic and applied. In applied research, the investigator is trying to solve a problem or create an opportunity by applying knowledge from several sources, but with an immediate need and expected outcome. Most people recognize the value of this type of practical research. Basic research is very different—it works to understand the underlying principles and biology that affect us and our surroundings. We often don’t see the significant benefit of such research for many years to come, leading some to question its value. However, this basic research is the foundation for future gains in applied and real-world situations.
In agriculture, basic research is used to discover new possibilities. It involves finding new ways to do things that are more productive, safer and better for the environment, while adding to the economy and improving the welfare of people and animals. The exciting thing about agricultural research is that this basic research, which can seem a bit “out there” at first glance, can result in very real solutions in the not-so-distant future.
An example of a basic research breakthrough was when I was studying a compound called phytic acid in the ’90s, and how it was, in part, reducing the digestibility of canola nutrients. The research determined that the compound, when combined with another enzyme, broke down under certain conditions. Word spread and companies began producing and optimizing this enzyme. The research process had gone from basic to applied. Now, essentially all hog and chicken diets include this enzyme to increase grain and oilseed value for animals. It’s cut down on pollution and reduced transportation costs associated with manure.
Our universities play several important roles in research. They provide an educational environment to help students get a solid background and the tools they need to be effective in their jobs. Professors, especially in agriculture, are typically involved in applied research that they introduce to their students to broaden their experience and knowledge.
Some of these students will be interested in learning more about how the science happens—wishing to become an expert in a certain area and add to the body of scientific knowledge. To do this, they can pursue a master’s degree that takes them deeper in the scientific discovery methods and gives them the opportunity to conduct research that may answer some basic or applied questions.
Some of these students will be so fascinated by the pursuit of knowledge that they will wish to contribute in a more significant way—they will choose to complete their PhD and will likely continue conducting research for the remainder of their career.
At the University of Saskatchewan, in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, we have a new research centre that offers good examples of the various types of research and how possibilities can become realities. The Canadian Feed Research
Centre in North Battleford has three distinct research areas. It has a lab area where small quantities of material can be processed in very controlled ways. This supports basic research that works to understand things like how chemical structure can be altered to increase nutritional value and improve animal and intestinal health. Once a processing method has been identified and the underlying principles are understood, it is time to scale up and conduct small-scale animal studies. For this, there is a pilot line that processes feed and ingredients at about two tonnes per hour and can be used in the many animal research facilities at universities. Once the processing method has been thoroughly tested, it can be processed in the industrial line, which is a large-scale feed mill capable of producing commercial feed at 20 tonnes per hour. At the Centre, undergraduate students receive training in the basics of feed manufacturing in the commercial line. Meanwhile, graduate students use the lab and pilot lines to conduct research and find new solutions to real-world needs.
This is just one of many examples of how research in our agricultural universities not only looks for possibilities and dares to dream, but also turns those possibilities into real-world solutions that are valued by the industry.