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NSF, Gates Foundation Come Together to Fund Agricultural Research for the Developing World

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The National Science Foundation and the Gates Foundation have teamed up to fund research that will enable agricultural development, particularly in the third world.

This joint, $48 million program, called BREAD, will fund upstream, agricultural research with a focus on synergistic — especially international — partnerships and innovative approaches, as the program officers from NSF and Gates said at a session at the Plant and Animal Genome meeting this January. It is accepting proposals from various scientific and engineering disciplines, though it has roots in the plant genome project.

"We specifically look for the strength of the partnerships and the potential to impact small shareholder agriculture in developing countries," NSF's Jane Silverthorne says. "We work very closely with Gates all the way through this, though it is an NSF program and the decisions are being made by NSF."

The partnership between NSF and Gates was a few years in the making. The former division director of biological infrastructure at NSF, Machi Dilworth, knew Rob Horsch, who was joining Gates from Monsanto. Dilworth mentioned to Horsch the possibility of joining forces. After about three years and many conference calls, there came the BREAD program. "This isn't just a question of partnership in which both sides put in money and there's no communications. It's actually a very collegial, collaborative effort, all the way from thinking about the science and NSF's way of getting ideas in a bottom-up way from the community really meshes with Gate's mission," Silverthorne says.

To understand what it is that small shareholder farmers need — be it flood or drought-tolerant crops or to increase a crop's nutrient level — NSF and Gates are encouraging applicants to partner with researchers at local universities. To further that goal, the Gates Foundation held a conference in Nairobi last year to bring US and African researchers together; another one for this year is in the works. And after the first grants go out this month, Silverthorne says they plan to bring the PIs and co-PIs to Washington to meet and share advice.

As Gates' Katherine Kahn said at the PAG session, the ultimate goal of the project is to have "food in tummies and money in pockets."

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